Can Lean Thinking help us to improve what we do?

Lean Thinking is a method to help an organisation, group or project team to improve the productivity, efficiency and quality of its products or services. Find out more about how it might help you.

The founding principle is that no work should be done unless it is going to create customer value. By clearly defining value for a specific product or service from the end customer’s perspective, all the non value activities, or waste, can be identified and removed step by step.

The origins of Lean Thinking

It is easiest to understand how Lean Thinking applies to organisations which manufacture products, for example car production. In fact, the ideas behind what is now termed Lean thinking were originally developed in Toyota’s manufacturing operations – known as the Toyota Production System. The faster you can process an order, build a product, or provide a service the less it costs to provide and the happier the customer. Lean Thinking focuses on streamlined work process, reduced inventory, no backlog, maximizing throughput, and eliminating bureaucracy.

The term was popularized in the book “The Machine that Changed the World” which clearly illustrated the significant performance gap between the Japanese and western automotive industries. [1] It described the key elements accounting for this superior performance as lean production – “lean” because Japanese business methods watsted less and used less of everything:

  • human effort
  • capital investments
  • facilities
  • inventories
  • time spent in
    • manufacturing
    • product development
    • parts supply
    • custom relations

Customer focussed working

For most organisations it is important to recognise that only a small fraction of the total time and effort actually adds value for the end customer. It is estimated that for most production operations only 5% of activities add value, 35% are necessary non-value adding activities and 60% add no value at all. [2]

Can Lean Thinking be applied to any organisation in any sector?

Although its origins are firmly in an automotive production environment, the principles and techniques are transferable, often with little adaptation. Womack and Joneshave showed how firms in several industries have doubled their performance while reducing inventories, throughput times and errors reaching the customer by 90%. [3] These results are found in all kinds of activities, including order processing, product development, manufacturing, warehousing, distribution and retailing.

Can Lean Thinking be applied to the Care Services Improvement Partnership?

Yes. The key to this thinking is taking time to reflect on the purpose of what we do and specify that which is valuable in the eyes of the customer as distinct from the perspective of the organisation or functions we provide. Saigei suggest that, ‘this is the gateway between marketing and operations and is fundamental to the customer centric organisation.‘ [4]

Lean Thinking invites us to map the steps in our work activities which are required to deliver the most value to our customers. This process will often lead to the identification of activities which add little or no value at all in the eyes of our customers.

Traditionally, lean seeks to eliminate 7 types of waste or ‘muda’. Within CSIP we might we might interpret these as follows:

  • duplication of activity that can be rationalised
  • too may steps or stages in our work processes that can be simplified
  • inappropriate amounts of work that add little value to our customers
  • activities which generate anti-value from our customers perspective

How do I do it?

A number of tools and techniques have been developed to support Lean Thinking. These include: Value Stream mapping, Quick Changeover/Setup Reduction, Kaizen, and Pull/Kanban Systems. Don’t be put off by the terminology used as the tools are based on common sense and have real practical application.

More information about these can be accessed using the further reading and useful links.

Further reading and useful links


1 Womack, Jones & Roos (1990) The Machine that Changed the World. Simon & Schuster, New York

2 Ibid. 1

3 Womack and Jones (1996) Lean Thinking. Simon & Schuster, New York.

4 Saigei Founding Principles of Lean-production

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