What are the lean principles?

Henry Ford’s pioneering production system is world famous for revolutionizing the assembly line and mass production, but few outside of manufacturing know about Toyota’s influence on modern day productivity and management practices.

Long before Toyota became the global automotive titan it is today, it was a small manufacturer, producing fewer than 3,000 cars per year and struggling to stay afloat. After the company’s executives and lead engineers made an extensive visit to one of Ford’s factories in Michigan, they understood they’d never create anything like Ford’s operation. But their visit didn’t discourage them — in fact, it inspired them to innovate and create something better.

What emerged became known as the Toyota Production System, a revolutionary waste-reduction methodology that helped the auto manufacturer become one of the most efficient companies on Earth.

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The birth of lean

As knowledge work became more prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s, researchers like management expert James P. Womack looked to the Toyota Production System for inspiration on improving performance and workflow.

With his colleagues, Womack introduced the lean philosophy and framework, named after its goal of trimming excess to focus on essentials. In 1997, Womack founded the Lean Enterprise Institute to further develop the methodology and educate business leaders about it. Today, a variety of industries use lean, including manufacturing, healthcare, finance, technology, and distribution.

Lean incrementally improves value over time by eliminating waste. Lean managers accomplish this by implementing new processes in their organizations in accordance with lean principles. These principles shift the ways team members work together and approach their individual tasks, improving key performance indicators, such as cycle time, throughput, and operating costs.

The five lean principles

Lean has come a long way since its start at Toyota in the 1950s. Womack distilled the company’s framework into five lean principles that can apply to any industry. When an organization practices them over a long enough time frame, they will completely transform their hierarchy and culture.


In lean, the customer determines value. What do they need? How much are they willing to pay for it? By answering these questions and centering value in their decisions, teams avoid creating waste through overproduction. Manufacturers create what the market needs, nothing more.

For example, software developers focus only on creating and upgrading features that customers use. Designers create products that have a tangible impact on consumers’ lives.

Value stream

A value stream helps map out a workflow. Once a lean team determines what’s valuable for their customer, they can determine exactly how to create whatever product or service provides that value and reverse engineer it all the way back to its raw materials.

In car manufacturing, a value stream defines everything from the individual parts and components to the metal pieces needed to manufacture them. Likewise, in software development, the value stream maps out the coding and marketing strategy that goes into a new product launch.

Having a defined value stream makes it easy to refine workflows from a high level since it will be easy to identify redundant or unnecessary parts and processes.


Flow is the principle of refining processes (including their order) so work proceeds easily, uninterrupted, and without bottlenecks through the entire value stream. Teams have to communicate deeply about their collective and individual needs and processes to effectively streamline workflows. 

This principle breaks down the siloed thinking that prevents many teams and workers from collaborating effectively.


A defining attribute of lean is its de-emphasis of quotas. A lean organization completes work on an as-needed basis instead of pushing the work in a way that can lead to overproduction and wasted time. The resulting principle means that the organization pulls work into a queue based on signals or demand from customers or the market.


Perfection isn’t a static state of being — it’s an ideal that constantly evolves and is better than the status quo. Lean provides a framework for organizations to pursue perfection through iterative and constant improvement.

Built into each work cycle is a stage for review and reflection that allows stakeholders to identify more waste and refine processes to remove it in the future. This allows the next cycle to unfold with even more efficiency, further increasing value because workers maintain productivity with less effort.

Putting lean principles into practice

One of the easiest ways to create lean processes and stick to lean principles is to use digital workplace management tools like Jotform. As a form builder with more than 10,000 customizable templates, Jotform makes it easy to build robust forms that aid in creating value streams and flow.

Jotform Approvals even provides complex, automated approval workflows that are usually time-consuming to execute, creating pull systems that create value. Managers can build workflows through a drag-and-drop interface and adjust them whenever necessary. Plus, employees can manage all aspects of their work on any device through the Jotform Mobile Forms app.

When Toyota executives implemented their new production system, it changed their entire organization. Workers became more excited about the company’s success, managers felt more supported, and everyone shared their ideas on how to make things better. Now, regardless of industry, any organization can see similar changes when they implement lean principles.

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