Difficult definition of Lean

Did you ever face the same difficulty explaining Lean to someone who knows nothing about it?

It’s a real dilemma between giving a short yet oversimplified definition or setting up a kind of improvised conference that may disconnect your audience before it got the minimum understanding about Lean, isn’t it?

Once familiar with Lean, the question sounds strange. When knowing the basics and the jargon, a very concise definition is enough to understand what is wrapped within.

When explaining to somebody new to Lean or ignorant about it, most choose an elevator pitch style definition in order to raise interest letting the details for a later opportunity.

There are also cases when people obviously misunderstood a definition of Lean, like these guys proud about “being Lean” because they initiated 5S, and stick to their belief, surprised that you come up with something different.

Elevator pitching

Short, concise and sharp definitions of Lean are favored first because when delivered in assertive tone, they give confidence to both the speaker and the listener. In most of the cases, these pitches are teasers, catch enough interest of the listener for him to offer a further opportunity to learn more.

Alas, these concise definitions are also very often oversimplifying and while being true may be misleading. One example is : “Lean is about eliminating waste”.

Of course Lean is fighting against waste, but not because it was its goal but because it was what the workers on shop floor could do by themselves in order to contribute providing more value to customers.

If the listener only understands Lean as fighting waste, he’ll may grow the ranks of those believing it being cost cutting or doing 5S and thus miss a lot of its other potentialities.

Another example of such kind of over simplified definitions is: “Lean is about speed (and Six Sigma is about quality)”. Again, yes it’s true, when a process is freed from its major wastes the speed of flow increases, but speeding up alone is not enough because you can speed up a totally needless process without any benefit for customers.

On the other hand, as soon as the definition turns into a long sentence or several sentences, there is a risk to confuse the listener with too much information and scare him about something that sounds complicated.

A delicate balance

In my post definition of Lean, Dan Jones and Jim Womack illustrate two different approaches while defining Lean: Dan Jones uses the professorial extensive definition, Jim Womack uses the elevator pitch style, but giving a bit more explanations right after pitching, as does Mike Rother in the >related post<.

Circumstances play a role when it comes to choose the definition. Dan Jones has the opportunity to explain extensively in a 6mn video obviously in his control, while Jim Womack and Mike Rother answer interviews where usually short and straight to the point answers are preferred.

Karen Martin, answering the question in Quality Progress February 2014 issue, goes for halfway: (Lean is) “a business management system consisting of principles, practices and tools and is primarily about developing people to achieve business results.” She adds “It is hard to summarize because of its multilayered effect and complexity without oversimplifying it.”

All of these definitions are correct and convergent for initiated yet different and maybe puzzling to newbies. I haven’t a unique definition of my own. As others, I tend to adapt to the audience and the time I feel reasonable under the circumstances. Nevertheless, I usually regret short definitions, feeling I owe more than this to Lean.

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