Defining Lean – Paco Estrada

As a Lean Consultant with Honsha, people have sometimes asked me to define Lean.

Although apparently simple, the question of “What is Lean?” can be answered in many different ways. One perspective can be to think of Lean as the principles of Toyota’s Production System applied to any organization and work environment. Although I believe this is an accurate description, it does not provide clarity to those not entirely familiar with TPS, and it also may not resonate clearly with organizations that perceive their opportunities and challenges as being vastly different from those of a global automaker.

No matter how one tries to describe Lean, there seem to be some key concepts that typically come up, such as efficiency, continuous improvement, waste reduction, standardization, culture, and even philosophy.

I came across a definition of Lean some time ago, that Pascal Dennis* shares, which I’ve been referencing for a few years now. It reads as follows:

“Lean is… A business system involving all personnel in the elimination of waste, to reduce the leadtime of a process”

I like this definition very much, especially because of what it does not say. Here’s what I mean:

A “System” (whether a business, production, or operating system) cannot be just a set of “tools.” The belief that adopting and properly using Lean tools (such as PDCA Problem Solving, 5S, Kanban, etc.) automatically makes an organization Lean can be equivalent to thinking that the proper use of high-end kitchen utensils and an award-winning oven automatically makes a person a world-class chef. One can imagine that depth in the understanding of culinary principles must go far beyond even the mastery of “tools” to make a world-class chef. Master Chefs’ deep understanding of their craft is made evident when one enjoys a meal prepared by them (the result of a system) and not by seeing their kitchen and its elements (a Chef’s tools). Successful Lean Organizations use TPS/Lean tools as the logical extension of their deep understanding of the system, to help them achieve and sustain successful business results.

All Personnel” is a straight-forward concept, yet it challenges an organization’s Leadership to find ways of truly engaging all staff, and making the company’s Lean Journey attractive/desirable to the majority. This is a humbling process that places “people above task” as a key ingredient for the long term success of a Lean Organization. Just like the moral to Aesop’s fable: “When the well-being of the goose is a priority, the golden eggs come naturally.”

Elimination of Waste” refers to one or more of the 7 Wastes**, as defined by Taiichi Ohno***. For this to occur consistently in an organization, all staff must be taught to identify these wastes, as well as be expected to help remove them with the support of Leadership. You’ll notice the Lean definition does not speak of cost reduction, but rather of the focus that makes it possible, without sacrificing quality.

Reducing the Leadtime of a Process” must ultimately be the focal point of any true Lean transformation. The “process” can be as broad as Order to Cash, as specific as Recruiting or as critical as Patient Recovery, depending on the organization and its priorities.  Reducing this Leadtime results in increased capacity, making Lean a formula for growth (as opposed to shrinking or downsizing) that’s applicable in any type of industry, sector or company.

But then, how does one reduce the Leadtime of a process? …By constantly eliminating waste at all levels, and in all areas of an organization.

And how can that be done successfully and repeatedly? …By involving all personnel in the task of willingly finding and eliminating waste.

How? …Through the purpose-driven implementation of the Business System (or Operating System) known around the world as Lean, which is based on a long-term philosophy of continuous improvement and respect for people.

A “toolbox,” however sophisticated, does not accomplish the above– for this, we need a “System.”

* Pascal Dennis is a professional engineer, author, and advisor to North American firms making the Lean leap. You can find a brief Bio on Pascal in’s Associates section.

**The 7 Wastes are: Waiting, Motion, Transport, Over-processing, Correction, Inventory and Overproduction.

***Taiichi Ohno is considered the Father of the Toyota Production System. Here you’ll find a short Bio from ‘The Economist’:


Paco Estrada

Paco is a Lean specialist and has been assisting companies of various sectors such as healthcare, packaging, pharmaceutical and  others in Mexico, USA and Europe.

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