What is Lean Thinking?

Lean Thinking is a total business perspective that looks at optimising capacity, in order to ‘flow’ the right products and services to the right customer in the right way at the right time. Whilst many people have argued about what lean thinking actually is, Jim Womack of Lean Enterprise Institute has tried to encapsulate it as: 

Lean = Purpose + Process + People


The ideas behind the term 'lean thinking' were initially described in the book The Machine That Changed the World (1990) by Womack, Jones & Roos. Based on the findings of MIT's 5-year, 14-country International Motor Vehicle Program, the book illustrated the differences between The Toyota Production System (TPS) and other less successful methods of car production. The TPS was able to produce a relatively high variety of products at lower volumes with fewer defects. This type of thinking was eventually coined ‘lean’ because it appeared to use less of everything – less time, less inventory, fewer wasteful processes.

In their follow up book, Lean Thinking, Womack & Jones developed five lean principles:

  • Specify value from the standpoint of the end customer by product family.
  • Identify all the steps in the value stream for each product family, eliminating every step and every action and every practice that does not create value.
  • Make the remaining value-creating steps occur in a tight and integrated sequence so the product will flow smoothly toward the customer.
  • As flow is introduced, let customers pull value from the next upstream activity.
  • As these steps lead to greater transparency, enabling managers and teams to eliminate further waste, pursue perfection through continuous improvement.

Others have since argued that the originators of the Toyota Production System did not design against the five principles as such, although the terms are still widely referred to today in reference to lean thinking. Preferring to refer to 'systems' design rather than the codified thinking described by Womack and Jones, John Seddon (Vanguard Ltd) has commented:

'The purpose of 'lean' is to increase capacity by designing a system that optimally responds to customer demand'

Lean thinking may be applied across all parts of the extended enterprise (including strategic and financial aspects) and has been implemented in the manufacturing & services sectors, in both multinationals & SMEs. It has been widely implemented in aerospace, automotive assembly/parts production, food/clothing production & retail, pharmaceutical production, contact centre services, defence and more recently insurance & banking, local government, IT, healthcare & defence.

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