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Lean Primer

lean primer

Summary of the ‘Lean Primer’ written by Craig Larman and Bas Vodde

By Shalice Reilly, Intern for the Office of Process Improvement
Posted: November 15, 2018

In the Lean Primer text, written by Craig Larman and Bas Vodde, the authors synthesize and apply the Lean practices developed by Toyota, as they are explained in the book ‘The Toyota Way’. This text not only explains the elements of Lean Thinking but also explores and corrects the many misguided applications of supposed ‘Lean Thinking’, to further explain what Lean Thinking truly looks like in an enterprise.

lean thinking house

Figure 1.1 Lean Thinking House

Big Picture of Lean

The term Lean (or Lean Thinking) is the English name given to a system that is now popularly referred to as ‘The Toyota Way’, after both the company that created it and the text that popularized it. According to Larman and Vodde, Lean is “a proven system that applies to product development and production”. Traditional business thinking is often focused on resource utilization and productivity. Conversely, Lean focuses on efficiency. The Lean Thinking Model was developed into a well-known graphic, named ‘The Lean Thinking House’ (as pictured below, in figure 1.1).

Many corporations and organizations recognized the success of Toyota’s innovative practices, which inspired them to implement Lean in their workplace. Unfortunately, in widespread efforts to do so, Lean has been simplified down past it’s original concept to a collection of tools and the practice of waste reduction; which oversimplifies the pillars of Lean Thinking. Lean Thinking’s founding principles and/or pillars are ‘respect for people’ and ‘continuous improvement’. Any adoption of Lean requires four key elements; the two pillars, a ‘challenge everything’ mindset and a culture that embraces change. If an effort to adopt Lean does not have these key concepts at its core, then it is not true Lean, it is just waste reduction.

The Components of the Lean Thinking House and What They Mean

The Primary goal of Lean is to ‘sustainably deliver value fast’. In terms of ‘The Lean Thinking House’, this goal is pictured as the roof. To ‘sustainably deliver value fast’ means to create a flow of value to the customer without delays. In order to do this, Lean seeks to reduce cycle times, without cutting corners, reducing the quality of the product or creating an unsustainable system or pace.

The foundation of this system of thinking is having managers who take on the role of Lean Thinking teachers. This means that managers must be engaged in and truly understand the organization’s processes, and actively teach their employees to think for themselves. One of the most important factors of successful Lean implementation is the organization's culture around innovation and improvement. This means that Lean qualities in management are needed for any meaningful, sustained success in an organization.

This brings us to the two pillars of Lean; respect for people and continuous improvement. Respect for people comes from the concrete actions and culture of an organization. According to the Lean Primer text, this is shown by eliminating wasteful work, creating a culture for real teamwork, mentoring to develop skillful people, humanizing work and environment, providing a safe and clean environment, and developing a shared philosophical integrity throughout the management team.

The pillar of continuous improvement is based upon several ideas; ‘go see’, kaizen, perfection challenge and working towards flow. ‘Go see’ represents a critical and fundamental element of Lean Thinking, which emphasizes the need for managers to get out in the field to connect with their employees and understand the culture of the workplace. It insists that managers cannot spend all of their time in their offices, but must be right where the work is being done to truly grasp it. Larman and Vodde highlight this concept as the first factor of success.

‘Kaizen’ represents both a personal mindset and a practice. Kaizen is often translated as ‘continuous improvement’ and emphasizes three concepts:

  1. Choose and practice techniques the team has agreed to try until they are well understood - master the standardized work
  2. Experiment until you find a better way
  3. Repeat forever. As a part of this, the term ‘yokoten’ is often used, which means to spread information laterally.

This is understood as an essential aspect of an organization with continuous improvement and is often seen through the formation of communities of practice.

In order to understand the perfection challenge, an organization must first be able to understand and identify value vs. waste. Once these elements of a process are identified, then a value ratio can be assessed. Lean thinking insists that to optimize an organization’s value ratio, waste must be eliminated, rather than refining existing value actions. This understanding leads us to the ‘perfection challenge’, which is the third element of continuous improvement. This is essentially the organizational wide and consistent effort to push for more, and not just meet standards. The concept that there are no final processes because the root of the ‘Toyota Way’ is to be dissatisfied with the status quo.

The book then outlines the ‘14 Principles of Lean’. Those are as follows:

  1. Base management decisions on a long-term philosophy, even at the expense of short-term financial goals.
  2. Move toward flow; move to ever-smaller batch sizes and cycle times to deliver value fast & expose weakness.
  3. Use pull systems; decide as late as possible.
  4. Level the work—reduce variability and overburden to remove unevenness.
  5. Build a culture of stopping and fixing problems; teach everyone to methodically study problems.
  6. Master norms (practices) to enable kaizen and employee empowerment.
  7. Use simple visual management to reveal problems and coordinate.
  8. Use only well-tested technology that serves your people and process.
  9. Grow leaders from within who thoroughly understand the work, live the philosophy, and teach it to others.
  10. Develop exceptional people and teams who follow your company’s philosophy.
  11. Respect your extended network of partners by challenging them to grow and helping them improve.
  12. Go see for yourself at the real place of work to really understand the situation and help.
  13. Make decisions slowly by consensus, thoroughly considering options; implement rapidly.
  14. Become and sustain a learning organization through relentless reflection and kaizen.

These principles are equally important to Lean as the two pillars. According to Larman and Vodde, all three must come together to form ‘one system that is practiced every day’. Through these principles, an organization can work toward improving ‘flow’. Flow is a term used to explain the process of delivering the values of an organization directly to the customer, with as little additional process as possible. Moving towards flow is associated with a multitude of tools that help people to create a smaller work package and queue size, and to reduce the variation of products. The text then explains commonly used terminology related to flow improvement and the specifics of the tools mentioned.

Why Implement Lean Thinking?

Larman and Vodde explore the benefits of Lean Thinking by explaining what Toyota employees excel at; product development and production. They conclude that Toyota excels in these areas because their Lean Thinking allows them to create more useful knowledge, and fosters a better learning environment than their competition

Conclusion of the Lean Primer

As you investigate Lean Thinking, it is easy to see that it is a broad system that spans all groups and functions of any enterprise. Lean Thinking is more than just tools. It is an enterprise system resting on the foundation of manager-teachers in Lean Thinking, with the pillars of respect for people and continuous improvement. The successful introduction of Lean will take years and requires widespread commitment, education, and coaching.