An Introduction to Lean Thinking: Secrets of the World’s Greatest Auto Manufacturer

There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.

— Peter Drucker

No doubt you’ve heard of Lean or Lean Manufacturing. You’ve probably also heard that it is a product of Japan (thanks Toyota!).

But did you know that Lean is a powerful philosophy that can be adapted to many situations? More so than just business and manufacturing?

I was first introduced to Lean thinking when I picked up the book The Toyota Way by Jeffrey K Liker. The book opened my eyes to the reality of what really smart systems were and when I was offered the chance to visit the Yanmar headquarters on the shores of Lake Biwa in Japan, I jumped at the opportunity to see the principles at work first hand.

What I found was pretty amazing from an engineer’s perspective. An immaculately tidy, visually appealing factory with people and equipment working in unison to achieve what looked like effortless work. It was icing on the cake when the robotic parts bin started singing (albeit very electronically) to us to get us to move out of the way!

So, what is this Lean thing exactly…?

Think Big… Real Big!

We all hate doing anything if there’s no reason for it, so it should come as no surprise that the basis of Lean is to have a core philosophy to live and work by.

If you think Vision + Karma then you’ll have a pretty good idea of how Lean views this. Long-term big-picture vision that is not directly tied to monetary gain is important. Everything we do, and each decision we make, should reflect a move towards our vision.

But Lean doesn’t just want us to think of ourselves; not when there’s a vast economy and society that supports us!

Personally, think about your friends and family, and professionally, about your customers, suppliers, and the communities within which we work. The things we do can have profound consequences on the networks that support us, and so it is important to understand how they are interrelated and what we can do to help them not the other way around…

But you already knew that right?

Red Means Stop, Green Means Go…

Besides the Karma friendly Philosophy, Lean is well known for the view that the right systems produce the right results.

The theory is that there are three main types of waste; muda (“non-value-adding work”), muri (“overburden”), and mura (“unevenness”), and that by limiting or eliminating these, we build the right systems.Of course that’s not all there is to it… there are a number of important factors to consider in the design of Lean systems:

  • Flow – can be thought of as the overall momentum or smoothness of a system. It is maximised by minimising or eliminating unevenness (think time and over/under production).
  • Pull – is closely related to Just in Time and can be described as mechanisms that (semi) automate a system to ensure that only work that is actually required is done. In other words, there’s not really any need to make 2 sandwiches if only one is going to be eaten and you’re just going to throw it away later!
  • Fix Problems Immediately – that’s right, if something is wrong, don’t let it keep happening! Take the right steps and solve the issue before it becomes a disaster, and then…
  • Standardise – a process once you’ve got it right!
  • Use the right Tools – Once a system is fully understood, introduce reliable tools and technology, such as visual cues (Kanban), software, or equipment.

What’s the most fundamental principle of the Lean philosophy though? Continuous improvement. Something we should all strive for.

What could you apply these principles to?