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More to Lean than meets the eye

I have read The Machine That Changed The World, Poppendieck books and the great Lean Primer. I have had a Kanban training by David J Anderson. So I am not an expert on Lean, but still… knowledgeable. At least knowledgeable enough to detect that Lean is far too much confused with ‘eliminating waste’. In its turn mostly a faint excuse for ‘cost cutting’ by mislabeling workers as non-value adding. Quite tiresome.

From that popular misconception it is a long journey to the understanding that Lean is primarily about respecting People and optimizing Value and Quality. That adopting Lean requires to look beyond mere practices, but introduce a mindset and a culture that enables and encourages people to reflect on their daily work and self-improve.


The corner stones of any system claiming to implement Lean are People.

They work in a cross-functional way upon a practice of self-management. In a Go See style Manager-Teachers help people on the workfloor to understand Lean and self-management to build better products. The workers get to embody the spirit of Kaizen, the attitude (!) of continuously minding the process and looking for improvements. Every involved person can stop the line if a problem occurs, so the root of the problem can be immediately detected and countermeasures installed.

This refers to all people that contribute to the Product: customers, workers, teams, suppliers, managers. And implies the abandonment of traditional relationships based upon large volume purchases, big negotiation rounds and pressuring one another. Likely to end up with at least one strangled party. It’s about building relationships on profit (and risk!) sharing. Mutual growth.


To start with, I prefer Avoiding Waste over Eliminating Waste. At least it implies a subtle difference in timing on when to act… Furthermore ‘Waste’ refers to steps in the process, not to disposing of people.

But, naturally, waste can creep in. The base to detect it is Kaizen. But upon that base attitude, a good practice to structurally identify waste is Value Stream Mapping. The full process from ‘idea’ to ‘build’ is timelined. The Value Ratio (time on Value adding / Wasteful activities) is the baseline figure against which to improve.

Another hands-on method for root-cause analysis are the 5 Why’s. Keep searching for the deeper cause of a found problem, until the bottom is reached. And, although not much, it may require more than 5 attempts…


People work together in Team Rooms and apply Visual Management.

A very popular approach has become the Kanban board. Within Lean in general, a Kanban is a physical signal-card intended to optimize stock or inventory (just enough). The term ‘Kanban’ is however becoming more and more known as the name of the tangible method for software development.

Physical cards represent work items and are placed on a whiteboard to show the work-in-progress (‘WIP’), with limits per state. The Cycle Time is the total time for completing a work item. Work cannot be pushed down the line causing disruptions to the flow. Work is taken in on a Pull base. The Team focuses on optimizing the flow by removing piled up work, thus safeguarding the overall cycle time (i.e. timely delivery).


There is no definite end goal, no final process. The improvement itself is the goal. This however does not exclude installing a proven process at startup as a baseline implementation against which to endlessly improve and adopt installed standards. But the actual process, its phases, roles and states, must be constantly tuned to the actual situation. There is no standard Lean process template to be copied.

And Agile approaches like Scrum are a natural fit to these Lean fundaments. No mixed, but blended philosophies.

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