The Core 5 Principles for Implementing Lean

Each of the 5 Lean management principles has its specific action items, find out how to start implementing it by following our concise guide.


Lean has proven to be an effective model for managing teams in some of the most demanding industries like software development, manufacturing, construction and many others.

A huge role in this has the fact that the methodology is simple to understand and quick to make an impact when implemented properly.

Like everything else in life, the first steps in Lean management are the most difficult and a huge portion of the teams that fail to implement it successfully give up early on.

Prepare Your Team for the Change

Although Lean management is based on the 5 principles of Lean, before applying them, you need to prepare your team, department, and even the whole organization for the change.

Set clear goals

First of all, you need to know what your end goal is and communicate that with everybody on your team. What are you trying to achieve by implementing the Lean process within your company?

Is it an optimization of your workflow so you can have faster product deliveries? Are you trying to increase your overall business profitability as a result of it? Or perhaps, you just want to ensure your business’s survivability by making it more sustainable in the future?

Whatever that goal is, it needs to be clearly defined. This way, you will be able to share a path to achieve it, motivate people to take the journey with you, and assist them by removing any obstacles that appear on your way to process perfection.

Establish a Lean mindset

Once you know what the outcome of the implementation is, you need to integrate the Lean mindset within your team.

Dealing with the human factor and getting everybody on board might be a major challenge. That’s why, to get started, you need to explain to your team members what Lean is and make sure they understand its benefits not just from an organizational perspective but from a personal one too.

The Lean process is about delivering superior customer value through eliminating waste but also cultivating an environment of shared leadership where your team members receive more responsibilities and seek continuous improvement. Once your colleagues understand that, they will be more likely to embrace the change.

It is important that you lead the change not manage it.

Start Small and Find a Change Agent

A good practice is to start with a single team and later spread Lean across departments, eventually transforming your whole company into a Lean organization.

If you are working at an enterprise level, you should form a temporary pilot group of members of different teams so they could serve as change agents after they return to their original teammates.

For example, if you have a large RnD department that consists of multiple teams working independently, you should ask for volunteers from each team.

A good way to ensure that they will be fitting change agents is to select only people who are not only enthusiastic but are influential in their teams (e.g. senior members, informal leaders, etc.). Once you set the strong foundation, introduce the 5 principles of Lean.

Introduce the Lean Management Principles

After you’ve prepared your team for the change you need to take specific actions (“Lean activities”) to apply each of the 5 principles of Lean.

Nonetheless, you have the responsibility to enlighten your team and help them understand why each principle is important with the goal of embracing Lean as a culture eventually.

  1. Identify Value

    After you’ve prepared your team for the change, as a Lean manager, you need to identify the value of the team’s work. You need to distinguish the value-adding from waste activities.

    It is crucial for everybody to be on the same page about it so this should be a collective activity.

    To understand what value is, consider the end product of your efforts and what your customer gets from it. By definition, value is everything that your customer is paying you for.

    There are teams, however, that are not producing a direct value for the customer of the company but are enhancing the overall value that the organization delivers (e.g. QA teams).

    In this case, the customer is your company. For example, the value of a quality assurance team’s work is the number of bugs they catch and therefore ensure that the whole company will deliver a product of value to the end user.

    Lean identifies 7 types of waste. Waste activities can be categorized as pure and necessary.

    The main difference between them is that some waste activities are necessary to support the value-adding ones while pure waste activities only bring harm to your process.

    Going back to the software development example, quality assurance is the brightest example of a necessary waste. It doesn’t generate a direct value for the end customer but it ensures the value of the development process doesn’t get lost.

  2. Map Value Stream

    After you’ve identified the value that your team produces, it is important to visualize its path to the customer. In Lean management, this is usually done with the help of Kanban boards.


    The Kanban board is a tool for mapping every step of your process and therefore visualizing the value stream of your team.

    Developed as part of the Toyota production system, which laid the foundations of Lean management, the basic Kanban board is a vertical flat surface divided by columns for the three primary states of any assignment:

     In progress

    Although visualizing your workflow this way is a good start, you should consider mapping your process more precisely by including the steps that compose each stage.

    For example, a Requested stage may have two steps – order received and ready to start. Usually, In progress consists of the greatest number of steps.

    In the software development context, you would normally have steps like tech design, development, testing and at least a couple of review stages.

    When mapping your value stream for the first time, you should focus on value-adding steps. Be sure to correct it occasionally as your process evolves.

  3. Create Flow

    In Lean management, flow is a key concept. Since any kind of waiting is a waste, when creating a flow of value, your goal is to ensure smooth delivery from the second you receive an order to the moment when you deliver it to the customer.

    A major impediment to creating a smooth flow are the bottlenecks in your process. As a manager, you should be watchful of how tasks progress through your workflow. Keep an especially close eye on where tasks get stuck and understand why that happens.


    Bottlenecks may be caused by lack of capacity at a certain stage, waiting on external stakeholders, etc.

    Among the most common bottlenecks in any process are the review stages because most of the time the people reviewing work items are fewer than those that submit it and often the reviewers become overwhelmed.

    Alleviating the bottlenecks in your process is crucial for the creation of a smooth flow. If you can’t alleviate them, at least be sure to protect any existing ones from getting clogged.

    A simple way to do it is to limit the amount of work that your team can have in progress simultaneously. Having this in mind, you should have a discussion with your team on the topic and agree together on acceptable WIP limits that will help them achieve maximum efficiency.

    Make sure that they understand how harmful multitasking can be to their productivity and experiment with different limits until you achieve smooth flowing of tasks.

  4. Establish Pull

    After you have created a flow of work, you should establish a pull system. The idea is simple, start new work only when there is a demand for it and your team has spare capacity. Your goal should be to produce value that is actually needed by your customer and avoid overproduction.

    To visualize it clearly, let’s look at the way assignments are processed in a pull system versus the typical push model.

    In a push system, a task is created and then assigned to a developer. Someone, usually some kind of manager or team leader, takes the units of work that need to be done and then allocates them to the members of the team. Simply, work is pushed onto the people who will be doing it.

    In a pull system, the tasks that must be processed are stored in a queue. A developer who is currently not working on anything will go to the queue and take the item with the highest priority that they are able to work on. The people who are doing the work pull the assignments and start processing them.

    As a Lean organization, your goal is to deliver value to your customers in the most efficient manner. A good way to ensure that is focusing on two key metrics of each task:

     Cycle time

    The cycle time of your tasks is the time your team is actively working towards their completion while throughput is the number of tasks that you finish in a predefined time frame.

    As a leader practicing Lean management, you should aim for shorter cycle times resulting in an increased throughput of your team.

  5. Seek Constant Improvement

    This Lean principle is closely related to the concept of continuous improvement, which is an integral part of Lean management.

    Your goal is to constantly improve every process in your team by focusing on enhancing the activities that generate the most value for your customer while removing as many waste activities as possible.

    Continuous improvement can be achieved with the help of methods such as Plan-Do-Check-Act known as PDCA but is more of a mindset that you have to inspire in your team.

    In order to help your team achieve continuous improvement, you should consider the way you lead them.

    If you are among the traditional managers that prefer to be in control of every activity in your team and micromanage even the execution of small tasks, you may have to embrace a change to your style and implement a shared leadership model.

    Continuous improvement can only blossom if every person on your team takes ownership of their tasks. This can prove to be quite difficult when they can’t even handle the smallest issues on their own.

    Place more trust in their expertise and increase their independence in time according to their performance.

    Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should let your team run loose and there are many ways to keep them accountable like implementing a daily stand up meeting.

    There, every person explains what they’ve done during the previous day, what they intend to do today and if there are any obstacles in their way.

In Summary

Implementing Lean management requires a deep understanding of the theory that stands behind it, starting with the 5 principles of Lean. That's why, you need to take your time to find the best way to make it work in your organizational context. When taking the first steps in Lean management you should:

  • Present the idea of Lean to your organization and make sure that they understand the change that is expected and how it will benefit the whole organization.
  • Start by separating value-adding from wasteful activities.
  • Visualize the value stream that you deliver to your customer on a Kanban board.
  • Create a smooth flow of delivering value to your customer by either alleviating or protecting the bottlenecks in your process.
  • Pull new work only when there is a demand for it and you have a spare capacity.
  • Adopt the proper culture in order to achieve continuous improvement of your process.

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