Lean is about waste elimination, or is it?

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on December 21, 2011 · 13 comments

Review any company’s slide decks on lean and you’ll likely find a definition for lean. They’re all a little different, but almost all of them center around one common theme:

the elimination of waste.

So, at least by consensus, this is the definition of lean: the elimination of waste. Of course some are more traditionalist and prefer to use the Japanese words, so it’s the elimination of muda. Besides most people not knowing what muda, is, you have to be careful about the many languages around the world. Would you be surprised to know that in Serbian and Macedonian, muda means “balls”? So imagine the reaction when someone sees this graphic:


I would propose that waste is not the best single word to use in defining lean.

If we had to pick a single word (which, by the way, we don’t), here are three better choices:

1. Value

Value has us focused on the customer. It’s what value we deliver and how we deliver that value. Yes, some will respond to say “once you know what value is, then you work to eliminate whatever is not value” and then we’re back on waste. But that’s only one side of the coin, and the less valuable side of the coin. I’ve never seen an organization cut their way to prosperity. I’ve seen them cut waste on their way to survival. I’ve helped to do that. I’ve seen them cut waste in order to invest in other ways. I’ve seen them cut waste to gain temporary cost advantages in the marketplace. But I’ve never seen an organization cut their way to growth and prosperity. To do that, you must continuous evaluate, understand, and extract new value for customers. This might be in what your deliver, or how you deliver it.

Many companies that are in commodity businesses, where they didn’t seem to have many new ways to deliver value, turned their attention towards how they delivered it. Vendor managed inventory was born out of this line of thinking. Retailers that sold commodities like Home Depot selling sheets of plywood added additional value by renting you a van to haul it in and selling design services so you could walk out the door with the right plans to use that plywood.

Companies that get so focused on eliminating waste that they forget to continually regenerate the delivery of value will not survive in the long run.

2. Alignment

When talking about lean, we use the word “common” quite often: common lens, common language, common method, common thinking. We want to build a culture, which is best described as the common beliefs and behaviors. We want to build standardization, meaning their is a common way to execute a process. In other words, we are aligned both in what we are trying to do and how we are trying to do it.

I think lean is largely about building an organization that has people pulling in the same direction. Building a value stream map is not about the map – it’s about having a common understanding of current reality and building high agreement about where we are going and how we plan to get there.

A lean organization is aligned, both vertically and horizontally. We act out of respect for each other, and the benefit towards each other, as an organization with purpose. Lean is a lot about alignment.

3. Problem

I also think lean is more about problem solving than waste elimination. Having waste is just one type of waste. But lean thinkers are problem solving. They focus both on the process of problem solving and the problems themselves. It is about finding the hidden problems, surfacing them, articulating them, managing them, and yes, solving them.

Lean organizations stare their deepest, ugliest problems in the face. They write them solve and engage in them.

Lean organizations think of strategy development as problem solving. They think of people problems as problem solving. They think, with structure and purpose, their way through any gap.

Yes, waste elimination is great. I’m a big fan.

No, we don’t need a one-word definition for lean.

That being said, since waste seems to be the most associated word with lean, maybe we should give that a little thought.

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