Lean Thinking

What is the optimal path to be more productive and to increase profits? This is one of the toughest questions business leaders have always been facing. In this day and age, market competitiveness makes it even more challenging to achieve such goals. What is the right answer? Ingenuity, state-of-the-art service, new management ways, or shift in the company culture? Today, we’ll attempt to answer this question.

We’ll start with a century-old story that occurred in Japan – the birthplace of the Toyota Production System (TPS) and Lean thinking.

Make Work Easier, Safer and Meaningful – The True Goals of TPS  

Young Sakichi Toyoda (founder of Toyota) came up with his first invention – an automated loom which enabled its operation using only one hand. The invention’s goal spurred out of a simple need – to make people’s work easier. Still, it had a tremendous positive impact on quality improvement, process efficiency, and productivity. 

Sakichi’s invention had also resolved a significant problem in the old process of weaving which created a lot of dust and caused lung damages. The newly added feature created a safer workplace for the operators. This improvement in the invention originated from simple care about the line workers’ health but it naturally led to an increase in line productivity. 

Another innovation introduced by Sakichi was a simple device to detect broken threads. In such an event, the automatic loom would immediately shut down as a signal of a problem. The goal of the device was to avoid production defects by enabling workers to operate more than one machine to fix the issue.  The ability to run more than one machine at a time made operators’ work more meaningful which resulted in production capacity increase. The concept is known as Jidoka or automation with a human touch. 

So, What Is Lean Thinking? 

The focus of the “Toyota Way” was on the people who do the work. The aim to facilitate their work, eliminate all waste, interruptions, overburden, creating more free time for workers, safer conditions. This allows them to realize their full potential and bring true value. 

This is what formed the basis of the Lean concept which led to the establishment of Lean management in the late 1980s. Eventually, it enabled the spread of the Lean philosophy and thinking throughout the world. 

“Manufacturing must be both efficient and also have respect for the person running the machine.”

Taiichi Ohno, Toyota Production System, Beyond Large-Scale Production

How to Foster a Lean Culture with Lean Thinking? 

Lean is about changing the culture. This is an enormous objective that begins with understanding the need for a change and adequate leadership. 

Understand the Basics – Respect for People and Continuous Improvement

Lean thinkers emphasize the real value creation for the customer, instilling a continuous improvement mindset (Kaizen) and doing so with respect for the team – the Lean building blocks. A truly successful work process does not have one secret answer and does not rely on applying specific practice. It’s a process in motion that evolves with the ideas of the people who shape it. Respecting people’s ideas, actively listening to their problems, acknowledging their input, skills, and feelings is crucial for creating a productive work environment. 

Lean thinking
Lean Thinking Pillars

Inspire Lean Thinking with Lean Leadership

Lean leadership is about mentoring, embodying, and inspiring Lean thinking and the Lean values throughout your organization. Leadership behavior is important for shaping strategic decisions and establishing company goals, but most importantly, it greatly impacts the culture in one organization.  

As mentioned, Lean teaches us to continuously improve our work, our processes, and ourselves. Taking this to heart in the business world makes judgmental behavior counterproductive to creating real value. Instead, a lean leader embraces critical thinking and offers discussion. Lean tools such as Kanban help by bringing the focus on the work itself rather than the people who do the work. In addition, the 5 Whys root cause analysis tool, for instance, enables people to improve the way work is performed continuously.  

Lean leadership has to offer guidance, constructive feedback and should instill a need for improvement. It’s amazing to see this in action! In Kanbanize, I’m privileged to work in an environment where this principle is taken to heart.

Lean Leadership
Lean Leadership

Lean thinkers seek to re-engage employees by valuing their expertise and eliciting their solutions, rather than imposing them. Lean leaders move away from: 

  • Providing answers; 
  • Searching for immediate solutions; 
  • Setting goals for subordinates; 

… and move toward: 

  • Asking the right questions; 
  • Searching for root causes; 
  • Uniting individual and business goals. 

The process of leading an organization into Lean thinking needs to be done carefully, with complete commitment and buy-in from the top-level leadership.

Adopting the Lean Philosophy within Yourself

Lean thinking starts at the top, but also from the inside out. Leaders must cultivate an attitude of respect for others and humility within themselves.  

Leaders serve employees by removing obstacles and promoting flow. Over time, these behaviors are instilled within people and practiced by everyone on the team and in the organization. 

Lean systems are powerful ways to improve productivity, quality, and profits. But they cannot be simply adopted as quick fixes to target certain metrics; they must be fully adopted, committed to, and practiced daily. 

A leader has the opportunity to inspire and foster these behaviors or undermine them. Lean thinkers are indeed driven by a strive to always improve while respecting collaborators.  Adopting this philosophy within yourself is the first step towards building your empire!

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This post has been updated by our editors. It was originally published on the Kanbanize blog in April 2018.