What is Lean Manufacturing?

What is Lean Manufacturing?

Interesting question isn’t it? Lots of people talk about lean manufacturing, but when it comes to defining it, it is not so easy. The fact is that “Lean” is a philosophy which evolved over many years based on some simple concepts. Understanding these concepts and principles will help in understanding lean manufacturing itself.

Lean manufacturing is a manufacturing methodology where wastes are identified and removed continuously from the system in order to create value.

Where did Lean Originate?

The real guru of lean manufacturing is considered to be Taichii Ohno. He understood the very different requirements of manufacturing vehicles for the Japanese market, after World War II, and developed a system that would work there for Toyota. This manufacturing approach, very different than its US counterpart, introduced concepts and tools including: Total Productive Maintenance (TPM), Single Minute Exchange Of Dies (SMED), TAKT time, KanBan, Kaizen, Poke yoke, Jidoka and others. These tools and processes combined with genuine employee involvement evolved into a manufacturing philosophy that we call today: Lean Manufacturing.

Other Characteristics of the Lean Philosophy

Definition of waste, maintaining customer supplier relationships (internally and externally), empowerment and respect to employees, idea generation and using the ideas generated by employees to the betterment of the organization, organic management structures, problem solving, ability to adopt to the fast changing situation, looking into the bigger picture by avoiding sub-optimization, and simplicity are among the key features of any lean system.

Lean is Everywhere

Today the lean concepts have reached many other industries including healthcare, service providers and even military. The variety of organizations that are practicing lean concepts in them goes to show the universal applicability of lean concepts or lean thinking. Lean technologies may be unique to the implementation but the lean thinking is universal.

Culture Change

It is important to understand that Lean in not about just tweaking the current systems. It is a change in culture. Lean recognizes that anyone can buy equipment but people make the difference. To accomplish this change requires a real commitment by the organization and its leadership team.


Many attempts at implementing Lean fail, due to the lack of understanding and adopting core Lean principles. Some failures are attributed to “cherry picking” certain lean tools and expecting results – as if Lean is just about tools and processes. Some companies seek to reduce the number of employees – this should never be done in the name of Lean. Before jumping on the “Lean Manufacturing Bandwagon” know and understand the commitments you are making.

Lean Enterprises

Lean enterprises consist of customers and suppliers for the manufacturer that has also adopted Lean. They help each other in the process of value creation and ultimately getting rewarded collectively for their efforts. Large amounts of wastes do exist in interfaces where each party separated in the supply chain. In today’s competitive markets most of the manufacturers are willing to reach their suppliers and customers and treat them as partners not as separate parties. In fact, it is very hard to become a lean manufacturer without having a good supplier base at least.

Looking Ahead

Lean holds great potential for the future. Lean concepts can be applied in almost any industry or organization – new or old. Through Lean, organizations can achieve lower costs, high quality, greater performance, eliminate waste in manufacturing and providing services, while creating a working environment that is highly productive and employee friendly. All these: requirements of the future.

Adapted from an article by Aza Badurdeen