The speed of work is always increasing, but it’s not just because of advances in technology and machinery. The way people work together is changing as well, thanks to advanced efficiency and improved collective productivity.
For decades, one of the primary ways to improve workflows has been adopting lean management techniques, also known as lean thinking. Lean is a type of workflow methodology designed to minimize waste and maximize customer value.
While it originated in manufacturing, its principles began spreading throughout the business world in the 1980s. Lean went on to revolutionize corporate management, finance, software development, and even the military.
Regardless of which industry or organization adopts lean thinking, the process transforms everyday business functions and, ultimately, organizational operations as a whole. Managers and workers start practicing lean thinking by questioning how they can create more value for their customers and then gradually refining each business process to follow the lean pillars.
The origins of lean
In the 1950s, Toyota was a small Japanese auto manufacturer on the verge of bankruptcy. After engineers visited one of Ford’s factories in Michigan, the leader of industrial efficiency at the time, Toyota leadership began thinking differently about their own practices.
Taiichi Ohno, one of the company’s lead engineers, identified seven types of material, time, and energy waste at the Japanese plant and created a new production system that minimized them.
At its core, the evolution revolved around manufacturing only what they needed as they needed it to avoid overproduction and wasting resources. This became known as the Toyota Production System, which revolutionized the company’s business operations to turn the company into the global juggernaut we know it as today.
With the advent of new business technology in the 1980s, thought leaders sought to create a similar revolution in productivity for the business world in general. They coined the term “lean” to describe Toyota’s manufacturing process and broke it down into a handful of principles that managers could apply in design, engineering, software development, and corporate management.
The two lean pillars
If you imagine lean management as a roof, two pillars hold up the structure. Let’s explore them.
Lean understands work as ongoing and cyclical, without a distinct start and end. Whereas old modes of thinking focus on processing — say, turning a pile of aluminum into a pile of sprockets — lean takes the larger view that this activity will repeat every time there’s more demand for sprockets. That’s why it’s important to improve the sprocket manufacturing process for the next time.
Continuous improvement itself is best understood as a cycle that unfolds in four steps. Each cycle presents the opportunity to learn and make adjustments during the next cycle to improve efficiency and reduce waste.
- Plan: Build the processes to achieve a goal or implement a solution.
- Do: Execute the workflow.
- Check: Analyze the workflow’s outcome and efficiency.
- Change: Determine a new goal to achieve in the next cycle, such as a shortened cycle time. Repeat steps one through three.
Respect for all people
In lean management frameworks, the customer has the most important perspective — everything is geared toward creating more value for them.
Within the organization, lean thinking tends to flatten hierarchies as individual workers have more authority to solve workflow problems. Because continuous improvement is so important, their insight as hands-on doers is especially helpful when it comes to restructuring and streamlining processes for greater efficiency.
Lean recognizes that the people best equipped to eliminate waste from processes are those who see it happening while they’re completing their tasks.
The lean pillars: Engines for transformation
These two values — continuous improvement and respect for all people — are at the heart of everything that makes lean thinking so effective. The lean pillars are radically different from the old way of thinking that gave rise to the problems of overproduction and wasted resources. In fact, these two pillars directly inform lean’s five principles:
- Identifying value
- Mapping the value stream
- Creating flow
- Pulling instead of pushing
- Pursuing perfection
Following the continuous improvement framework, teams constantly search for greater value and study the processes and methods that deliver it. Respect for people inspires the third principle of creating flow, which ensures the consistent delivery of value without stressing teams and workers.
The same applies to the pull principle. Pulling in work according to demand instead of pushing output onto customers results in higher quality and less pressure to sell, which improves relationships.
The final principle of the pursuit of perfection is the goal of the continuous improvement cycle. All the while, businesses use a variety of platforms to practice these principles, such as JotForm’s form and PDF templates, which simplify day-to-day lean practices.
Lean’s influence spreads beyond the organization as it becomes the basis for a greater focus on sustainability in manufacturing and business. The lean pillar of respect for people informs all efforts to reduce pollution and protect the environment. In addition, continuous improvement provides the framework for how businesses and manufacturers can refine their processes over time to reduce waste and achieve better results with more sustainable materials.
The lean pillars make it an incredibly versatile methodology for improving the way we work. Implemented correctly, it improves operations at every company, including yours.