Mike Rother’s definition of Lean

Defining Lean in a concise way is a challenge. Mike Rother’s definition as reported in february 2014 issue of Quality Progress goes like this:

Lean is the permanent struggle to flow value to one customer

This elevator pitch needs to be further explained. Mike Rother delivers some additional bullet points onto which I develop a bit further:

  • Permanent means on-going, never-ending. Lean is continuous improvement, as every improved situation can still be improved. Further improvements are revealed after looking again to the situation after a while or because some parameters have changed, situation evolved or technical evolutions allow new progress.
  • Struggle is the challenge to go through PDCA. It’s also about fighting inertia or falling back to old habits, finding energy to keep going on and fight against all the changes that affect negatively the processes we try so hard to improve.
  • to flow is not (just) provide. I understand this as more than a one shot, more than just the satisfaction of an expressed need, but a link between a constantly pleased customer and a dedicated supplier. Providing value can be done by timely dropping a shipment of awaited goods, meeting the requirements. Full stop. To flow value is care taking and providing what is needed or relevant next, continuously.

After reading this post, Mr Rother kindly contacted me to correct the quote in QP (the word ‘just‘ got lost) and explain the meaning behind to flow is not just provide:

In other words, it’s not just hold items in inventory or provide disparate points of service so you can (hopefully) provide what a customer wants, but rather to strive to flow a product/service to the customer when they want/need it. For instance, a customer seeking to buy a particular item, or handling the interaction points (purchase, check in, security, etc.) one goes through for air travel. That kind of flow ideal may not be completely reachable, but it gives us something to aim and strive for!

  • Value changes over time. Value is usually defined as “what customer is willing to pay for” and in most of the cases it’s a solution to his/her problems. Once the problem solved another will pop up or take the new priority in the problems list. That’s why value changes and that’s why the link with customers is to be kept. Lean is not selling solutions off the shelf.
  • to one customer, the part Mike Rother develops most: “at the end of your value stream is one customer. Toyota had a traditional saying: we make millions of cars but the customer buys only one“. Disappointing a customer is losing the opportunity to build loyalty. This customer order pulled the production, it is clearly defined, already sold, so this trusting customer cannot be disappointed and every order requires special care.

I am not sure to translate Mr Rother’s idea faithfully, so please consider it as my own understanding. Feel free to give your insights or comments.

Related: Dan Jones and Jim Womak definition of Lean


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