What is Lean?

What is Lean and when can you apply it?

In every process where colleagues:

Lean can be applied in any business and not-for-profit sector and functional area we have years of experience in the business sector, in healthcare and in government. Not only do we have experience in prime processes, but also in supporting processes and departments.

Lean works

Experienced Lean Practitioners found out in many research studies that most processes only add about 5% of the value to for the customer. So 95% of all activities are wasteful activities  that don’t add value to the product or service. Think about it. Same will apply in your own organization.

Define value for a service or product from the view of the customer. The customer could be an internal or external customer. When you decide what the real value of a product or service is, you discover the 95% automatically.

Improving services always with the customer in mind then, and only then, becomes possible. You’ll reorganize processes, so information and service can flow through the new process without interruptions.

What is Lean exactly?

What is Lean - blok engels

Lean is an organizational philosophy that continuously  focuses at reducing waste and thus improving value.

Lean is based on principles, methods and instruments that are applied to increase speed and efficiency in every process, by looking for useless and wasteful steps and removing them.

Inventors and early adopters of Lean applied the philosophy and its methods in the car manufacturing line of Henry Ford, but also for instance, at Boeing during the second world war.

Toyota Motor Company ugely improved the principles Henry Ford created and combined them with just in time and flow production. They developed the Toyota Production System (TPS). This is the basis of Lean. Professors from the United States went to Japan and saw very lean production facilities, so that’s where the name Lean came from.

Nowadays Lean is applied in many sectors, such as business, trade, industry, healthcare and government within every functional area. Within Sales, Customer Service, planning, production, storage, expedition and transport, but also within supporting departments such as finance, IT, HR and general and technical services.

Lean produces services with the best customer value, with optimal quality and minimal waste. This makes sure your employees can do a better job while being happier, because they can see the results more easily and thus are involved more heavily. Because Lean is based on respect for people. As we always say ‘Lean means Power to the people’.


what is lean - vierkant blauw engels

What are the most important Lean Principles, methods and instruments

triangleWhat is Lean: Principle #1 Value

The goal of Lean is to look at processes from a customer perspective to decide upon the value of a service. Every activity that doesn’t add value for the customer, most of the time is a waste and unnecessary.

For Lean philosophy to be implemented successfully organizations should start with an attitude directed toward continuous change.

There should be a sense of urgency and a vision that Lean will also bring about radical improvements in results, because many other organisations have experienced that.

Working in Lean philosophy is a never ending story. Every day is a new opportunity to improve the process and every step in that direction is valueable. Like high management in Toyota says: ‘Toyota already embarked using the Toyota production system philosophy for 50 years and we still are learning on a daily basis’.

What is Lean: Principle #2 Valuestream

To discover which activities provide value to the customer, Lean uses the Value Stream Mapping method in Rapid Improvement Workshops.

Value Stream Mapping

In a Value Stream Mapping session the organization selects a group of services and follows the path from the start to the end; until delivery and draws a picture of that. This can be applied to an internal process, like ‘Processing of incoming invoices’. But could also be an external process like the ‘Order to cash process’. At the same time we will quantify the process in terms of quality, cycle time and cost. Something what our clients did not (really) do before this moment.

Wat is Lean: Principle #3 Flow

What is Lean - valuestream

So first understand how the process works: decide which steps add value for the customer and which steps are a waste. Value Stream Mapping is used to remove the boundaries within the organization, by gathering everyone who are involved in the process and make them focus on delivering the service together.

To map the current situation, participants of this session will walk around in their own work environment to see how the process flows. They usually see something different than how the process is described on paper. The Japanese call this ‘Go to the Gemba’; Gemba is the workplace. This is a very important principle. Seeing is believing and understanding.

The most important steps of Value Stream Mapping are:


Value Stream Mapping is working as an eye opener for most people. It was never this clear how much waste there actually are in the current process. Those wastes have gone unnoticed for such a long time. Although people recognise that processes are broken beforehand. But where and how is a revelation to them in 95% of the cases.

Many organizations take too little time to analyze problems, which makes solutions last for a short time. People get to work fast, but problems turn out not to be the real problems and the causes aren’t actually found either. Results are a limited and temporary. Unmotivated colleagues is often the next what is happening. Because precious time has been devoted to improving and the results are creeping back again. More time and devotion to analyzing the problem is really the solution to all the problems. Like we always say: ‘slower is faster’. In other words ‘take good time to sharpen the axe before starting cutting trees again’. And ‘sharpen the axe is ’ together with the other people involved in the process.

Take at least 60% of available time to define the problem and to analyze its causes. This will lead to long lasting results and energises further improvement.

What is Lean: Principle #4 Pull

Many organizations work with on a push basis. Customers get their service when the organization is done with it.
We teach organizations how to work on a pull basis. Your organization only works at the time the customer needs it. This sounds logical, but really think about it, how many times are you actually delivering from your own perspective? From the push perspective? Without the customer actually asking for the service? Most of the time we have to be happy with "we have planned you in for tomorrow afternoon". But you are you are not able to meet then. In 2 days would be much better. So we make it pull instead of push together with you.

This prevents organisations to have stock of products, of information, of work in process etc. And the risk of obsoleteness or deterioration is reduced. And of course this frees up capacity to deliver more services in a timely manner where the customer has asked for.

What is Lean: Principle #5 Perfection

The last step in Lean is striving for perfection by improving continuously. After implementing Lean Principles and after it has become clear to everyone that the process of reducing effort, time, space, costs and mistakes are actually something you want. Finding mistakes isn’t wrong. Mistakes are not attributed to people any more. Mistakes are attributed to wrong processes. That opens the minds of people towards improving instead of hiding away for mistakes. It becomes a sport, and a way of living reall,y to find new ways to improve on the road to perfection.

Suddenly, striving for perfection, the fifth and last Lean Principle, isn’t such a strange idea anymore. And of course, perfection is never reached… But that’s okay. The point at the horizon is inviting us to new futures.

cirkels3How to start successfully with Lean?

Of course you need a burning platform and a vision, how Lean philosophy can bring your organization into a new future, like many organizations are already busy with.

Then the goal is to always focus attention on the processes and culture within the organization. Everyone has to do this. Look at processes and how they function now. Evaluate the positive side and make an overview of how they can be improved.

In a Lean environment every process that has relations with another process is managed together and judged together. This means that processes that run across multiple departments are no longer seen as standalone processes. For example, the process of an order of a product that’s still in stock. It runs from marketing to sales to purchases to stock and transport.

In other words: it is time for you to start thinking in processes and activities and stopping thinking in departments. Of course, you still need departments, but most of the the gain in Lean organizations is:


Lean does what I call ‘closing the fingers of the hand’. Where the fingers represent the activities performed, and the spaces between the fingers the lack of alignment between these activities. The fingers can also represent people, departments, locations, et cetera.

Lean organisations gain the most not from increasing the efficiency of each finger, but by closing the gaps between the fingers.

Step 1 of Lean: Why

You elaborate on the urgency and vision for change. Then you start assessing the awareness of the way the organization thinks at this moment. you introduce new notions of value and waste. These will become the key notions in your team, your project or organization. Together, you’ll become aware of the need for change. Share your vision of creating a Lean environment.

Step 2 of Lean: Who

Together you decide which departments and positions will work together on a first delimited project to start with lean. You can only eat the elephant a little chunks. After a first project, you will roll out to many more parts of the organisation and turn it into a program. Give the program a forceful name. After many implementations remove the name of the program. Then Lean philosophy is ingrained in the DNA of your organisation. It has become a way of life: the the way of doing things within your organisation, with customers and suppliers, and the whole environment.

Step 3 of Lean: What

Start with a simple process that’s important and has a lot of effect on customers. For example: prevent trying to introduce quick and easy Lean fixes that aren’t connected to the whole process.

Make one person or team, who’s looking forward to doing it, responsible for the Lean initiatives.

What is Lean - blok engelsWho can lead this project?

There’s much material in the form of books, articles and trainings available. Of course these are helpful to better understand Lean. However, it’s not like reading this book and following a training will instantly help you improve your organization. It takes around 6 to 18 months to teach someone to use Lean Methods and create Lean culture. There is no cookbook for the application of Lean.

Most organizations choose to be supported by an external party. After being facilitated by their consultants for improving a range of processes, some appointed people who have been part of these first processes can be your own trainers for the new processes to be improved. As LeanResults we help organisations. In accordance with that we use the train the trainer method. Which is much more cost-effective and really enables you to improved by yourself after some (limited) time. Consultants then regularly come back with ‘light’ interventions, coaching your own trainers.

The best and most motivating way to start with Lean is to just bring on the action. Because Lean is all about action. Of course, coordinated and well thought of, but still action. When you have embarked on the Lean journey and also start seeing the dramatic changes, it becomes so much easier to see the continuous flow of Lean as a daily part of life.

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