How to adopt lean thinking

Lean management has completely changed the business world over the last 30 years. In fact, it’s now so ingrained in business culture that we’re not fully aware when a particular process stems from the lean methodology.

At its core, lean eliminates waste to maximize value for customers. Much of the workflow automation software on the market today incorporates some aspect of lean in its operations.

Lean is more than a workflow methodology or management system — it’s a way of thinking. As a philosophy, it profoundly impacts the way we conceptualize, approach, and execute work. You can significantly reshape your business simply by thinking lean, even if you don’t religiously adopt the methodology.

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What is lean thinking?

In the 1950s, Toyota was a far cry from the global automotive force we know the company as today. Back then, it produced only a few thousand cars a year for Japan’s small market and was on the verge of bankruptcy.

After an extensive study of one of Ford’s factories, which was then leading the world in terms of production, the leadership team at Toyota returned to Japan with some thoughts on how they could build on what Ford created.

Though incredibly efficient, Ford’s manufacturing operation was full of waste. It was also incredibly inflexible, part of an effort to keep costs per unit as low as possible. This limited the company’s offerings to only a few body types and colors, even though consumers were increasingly interested in variety.

Toyota engineers identified seven forms of waste afflicting both their and Ford’s operations, and devised a manufacturing framework that would minimize or eliminate all of it — even while providing better service to customers. They named it the Toyota Production System.

Creating the system was no easy feat, though. It required the entire leadership team to completely rethink their views of productivity and value, and slowly change each aspect of the company and how its people worked. Eventually, the new approach to manufacturing helped Toyota become one of the biggest and most successful automakers in the world.

Researchers James P. Womack and Daniel T. Jones created the term “lean thinking” in the 1980s to describe how the Toyota Production System could apply to other industries. Put simply, lean thinking is a way of looking at processes to identify the waste they generate, then following a system to gradually eliminate it. At the heart of the philosophy are the values of continuous improvement and respect for people.

How to adopt lean thinking

Lean management is based on five principles:

  1. Defining value
  2. Mapping the value stream
  3. Establishing flow
  4. Pulling work instead of pushing it
  5. Pursuing perfection

There are three primary ways to attune your mind to these principles.

Direct experience

When Toyota leadership first introduced their new production system to management and workers, their biggest challenge was training people to think differently about their jobs.

Company leaders encouraged the management team to observe firsthand the day-to-day activities of their employees so they could understand the issues they faced down to an ergonomic level.

This, in turn, built better relationships between workers and their bosses, opening the door to honest discussions, feedback, and collaboration on enhancements. All of these form the ingredients for “aha” moments, inspiration, and major breakthroughs.

Constant practice

One of the primary questions lean organizations ask is “How can we make this better?” This question applies to overall products and services as well as the processes that create them.

The question isn’t just for leaders and managers — it’s a solution-oriented mindset each worker should adopt. After all, the more they refine the processes they directly engage in on a daily basis, the easier their lives will be.

Group study

Lean organizations embrace a culture that emphasizes inquiry and continuous improvement. However, even for people not directly engaged in this kind of work, it’s possible to study its principles and application through classes, online communities, readings, and other types of organized meetings. These gatherings can produce the same benefits as direct experience in the workplace.

How to put it into action

The best way to get good at lean thinking is to implement its practices in your organization using one of a number of tools. For example, kanban boards simply (and often beautifully) visualize stages of work and the tasks involved in each.

You can also use Jotform’s form templates to facilitate teamwork and feedback. What’s more, creating standardized work protocols — using workflow templates from Jotform Approvals — ensures consistent quality in your products and services.

In our culture, we often associate change with great difficulty and effort. One of the beautiful things about lean is that it recognizes perfection as an ever-changing ideal to pursue over time rather than a fixed standard to achieve as quickly as possible and rigidly adhere to. As a result, lean increases productivity while lowering stress.

Simply beginning to study lean thinking generates momentum toward profound transformation in your organization and in the way employees work individually.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

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