As you can imagine, I’m on a lot of mailing lists and social media groups about Lean and see it described and talked about in many ways. Recently, some of these have been really over the top and, quite frankly, do a disservice. Headlines like “Improvement Through Cultural Transformation!” either scare people away or are so vague and highfaluting that everyone reads into it whatever they want.

Thoughtful organizations that can benefit, sadly, hesitate. Others jump in with both feet and little understanding of what’s actually required. Not surprisingly, their effort stalls, sputters or flat out fails; another casualty in the Program of the Month Club.

Lean strives for simplicity and transparency, so let’s describe it that way. Here’s how I frame my conversations with clients when they ask what Lean is all about:

Lean is the daily practice of people perfecting their own work
by eliminating non-value-added activities
and creating more customer value.

You’ll notice I don’t mention any tools or techniques. No value stream analysis. No 5S. That’s because tools change over time and apply to specific situations and problems. And I don’t mention reducing costs either because that’s just one possible result and some organizations don’t want to focus on that. For example, healthcare is concerned with patient outcomes and L&D organizations want to reduce time to proficiency.

This definition evolved over many years and tries to communicate Lean’s never-changing essentials. Here are the words and phrases I thought about carefully and why I include them (and exclude others).

“Daily Practice”

Do you watch the Olympic Games? Those athletes and teams perform at a consistently high level because they practice and practice and, then, practice even more. How well would the USA volleyball team perform if they got together and practiced once a month? They wouldn’t even make it out of the first round.

Lean is the same. It requires frequent application to develop proficiency and deliver results. The first step in developing Lean problem-solving muscles is to set aside time daily. In addition to doing work, people need to spend time improving work together.

“People Perfecting”

Lean is collaborative, so the word ‘people’ is important. Also, I didn’t say ’employees’ because improvement can involve suppliers, contractors and consultants.

Most waste is the result of activities, things and data moving (or, in some cases, NOT moving) between people, departments and locations in the right order at the right time. Therefore, people have to work together to identify and eliminate these wastes.

And they should have ambitious goals that make the time working together worthwhile. Problems should be eliminated at the source so they cannot recur. Lean is not putting yet another Band-Aid on a problem.

“Their Own Work”

As opposed to special teams sitting in a corporate office changing other people’s procedures, tools and work environment, Lean improvement happens where the work happens, i.e., at the gemba. Change comes from within.

Now, some of you are rolling your eyes, but consider the adage I live by: ‘People don’t mind change; they mind being changed.” Properly led and motivated, people are capable of radically altering how they do their work. And that leads to the last part of my description.

“Non-Value-Added Activities” and “More Customer Value”

Lean focuses on clearly understanding what the ultimate customer truly needs and wants, i.e., what they will actually pay for. Armed with this knowledge and using Lean tools and techniques, work teams can separate the wheat from the chaff and make changes, both small and large, to their work processes. What the ultimate customer values becomes the True North of every effort.