Reflecting on Lean – Lean Confusion by Jill Jusko

Lean confusion is a 3-page article by Jill Jusko, posted on on Aug 13, 2010. Despite the time past, this article is still actual and may well continue to remain that way. This post is friendly recension of mine, having read it long after its publishing (2016 vs. 2010).

Jusko’s article starts on the love-hate debate about Lean, even if not expressed in those terms, between proponents crediting Lean (Manufacturing) for many measurable benefits while opponents deny them.

Why the diversity of opinions regarding lean? (…) answer is that people are confused.” both about what defines Lean as well as how to implement it.

In order to clarify what lean is, Jusko proposes Jim Womack’s definition “to maximize customer value while minimizing waste. Simply, lean means creating more value for customers with fewer resources.” before quoting more of Womack’s in-depth explanation about Lean Thinking.

That’s the problem with Lean definitions. Either you tell them in a concise way, which may not suffice for the listener to correctly understand the intent nor grasp the full extend of it, or you’ll have to deliver a mini conference on it. None of these two options being certain to avoid misunderstandings or negative shortcuts.

In reality, the definition of lean frequently varies depending upon whom you speak with — whether it should or not.“ the article goes on. Yes, still true. This is depending both on who explains and who listens.

For instance, talking to a senior executive who has only very few time to listen to the explanation, an “elevator pitch” is required, even so “doing more with less”,  while perfectly true may end up with undesirable, mostly social, effects. On the other hand, going for a more detailed explanation may leave the impression Lean is difficult to explain – and understand – or the proponent is not mastering enough his subject to keep it short.

Even so Lean is strategic and should be considered so, many organization want the quick wins and go for the “tactical” implementation, which is more about the Lean tools than Lean Thinking and developing a Lean culture. “execution — or lack thereof — is a significant contributor to a lean implementation’s success” Jusko reports.

On page 3 of Jusko’s article, the “discussion” goes on in the section “what’s missing?” with two experts quotes, one about the necessary focus on machinery, the other about the importance of the human side. Both are right, but their explanations put that way may just… keep readers confused?

If I can put my two cents in, I would advise to go for the human side first. Changing anything on machinery with a deep knowledge about it can be long and deceptive, while properly using the available means – train people, organize work and flow better, avoid stoppages and breakdowns, etc. – yields higher return on investment.

The article ends with a kind of warning about asking “What’s Next Too Soon”, still true today as so many managers are convinced to “be lean” despite the facts and figures about their organization’s performance. Read “We are all Lean now. What’s next?” on this subject.

Few articles may keep their freshness after such a relatively long time after being published. It’s worth reading the original here:

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Definition of Lean in 15 words

One day after posting “Difficult definition of Lean” I came across Alessandro Di Fiore’s HBR article “The Art of Crafting a 15-Word Strategy Statement“.

The similarities between a concise strategy statement and a concise Lean definition struck me immediately. As a Lean definition may serve as a strategy statement and if a compelling strategy statement can be crafted with only 15 words, then a Lean definition can be expressed the same way!

This came as a sign just one day after posting my complaint about the difficulty to define Lean without oversimplifying it.

Picking up the challenge

I took a sheet of paper, a pen and drew a 3×5 table and assigned myself the requirements. The 15 boxes must hold the words:

  • Giving a concise yet accurate definition of Lean
  • That could serve as a strategy statement, or at least a True North statement
  • That is also a motto or reminder for people involved in a Lean transformation
  • Holding Jim Womack’s 3Ps: Purpose, Process, People

The result is:

Constantly achieving higher performance benefiting
customers and stakeholders using just
needed resources and everyone’s contribution

The definition reads: (Lean is) constantly achieving higher performance benefiting customers and stakeholders using just needed resources and everyone’s contribution.

Robustness test

In order to check the definition compliance to requirements, I asked myself following questions:

  • Does it focus? Yes. Anybody unaware about Lean can grasp the idea. It states what Lean strives for/has to offer, who will benefit and the carries the idea of frugality regarding costs (resources) and involvement of everyone.

I did not keep the difference or contrasting requirement as Alessandro Di Fiore recommends, even I am fan of neuromarketing approach. I assume that a good definition caries the implicit definition of what Lean is not and what makes Lean different.

This definition can be used as an elevator pitch with a CEO who will probably take particular notice of constancy, higher performance, customers and just needed resources. It can be proposed to personnel and labor union members, who will probably take particular notice of benefiting stakeholders and everyone’s contribution.

  • Can it serve as a strategy statement, or at least a True North statement?

I did believe so. To check it further, I asked myself can it be used as an upper objective (organization’s purpose) of a Goal Tree and can I derive the three to five Critical Success Factors (CSF) by asking “in order to constantly achieving higher performance benefiting customers and stakeholders using just needed resources and everyone’s contribution, I need…” and under each of these CSF a set of Necessary Conditions? Here the response is no about purpose. No organization would be created to fulfill such a generic fuzzy purpose, but the definition suits well as a CSF. The definition does not answer the question WHAT, but rather the HOW.

  • Can the definition be used as a motto or reminder for people involved in a Lean transformation? I do believe so. Every term is important and can be unfolded for more detailed explanation or to show how some behaviors or practices drift away, thus adjust them.
  • Does it convey Jim Womack’s 3Ps: Purpose, Process, People principle? Well yes, with a peculiar highlight of the purpose, not that much about process and the idea of people involvement.

For the time being I will keep it as is. I invite any reader to submit alternate 15-words definitions or post remarks about my reasoning.

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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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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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Definition of Lean

Dan Jones, what is lean?

Lean is about a new business model that delivers far more superior performance for customers, employees, shareholders and society at large. Initially this superior performance delivers exactly what customer wants, without any problems, delays, hassles, errors and firefighting.
Very quickly it’s also freeing up the capacity to deliver a third or more value, from existing resources without additional costs.

Jim Womack about Lean Thinking

Creating more and more value with less and less. That means less time, less space, less effort, fewer errors. It’s pretty simple. It’s all Lean is. The question is how you do that?

Related: Mike Rother’s definition of Lean