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The Lean Thinking Behind Popular Improvement Techniques

Posted by Maggie Millard

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Dec 11, 2018 1:54:10 PM

Young person thinking with a glowing machine head illustrationMany tools and techniques support the Lean management methodology. For those new to the approach, they can seem a little all over the map. You may ask what control charts and Catchball have in common. We find it helpful to put the Lean approach in context by looking at how the techniques fit into the Lean mindset. Once you outline the core values of Lean, the synergies of each common practice become clearer.

Respect for People

Lean organizations seek to show respect for their customers by providing the value they want, when and how they want it. They seek to show respect for employees by creating the conditions for them to do their best work and by offering each person the opportunity to contribute to the organization’s success. Don’t forget that one of the eight wastes of Lean is wasted human potential. Some specific Lean techniques reflect the value of respect:

Gemba Walks – During a Gemba Walk, the leader visits the place where work is done to show respect and ask questions. Gemba Walks give employees the opportunity to demonstrate current practices, voice concerns, and point out opportunities for improvement.

CatchballCatchball is a Lean practice in which an idea is formed and then passed around from person to person for feedback and inspiration. The “ball” can move back and forth, and up and down the organization, so that all the relevant players feel heard. This results in better ideas and more engaged employees.

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The Lean methodology leverages many ideas that were first practiced by Toyota in the post-WWII period. Toyota believed that visualization was the key to quality improvement. That’s why so many Lean techniques involve communicating information through illustrative methods.

Control Charts Control charts track process data over time by displaying it within the determined control limits. This allows managers to recognize the difference between common cause and special cause variation. In short, they can eliminate the noise of regular process blips, but be attuned to changes that should be a cause for concern. The chart makes it immediately clear when something has gone awry.

KanbanKanban is one of the tools that Toyota created to control inventory and manage a just-in-time flow of parts to the assembly line. Manufacturers use Kanban cards to indicate when inventory needs to be replenished. Other industries apply this principle by creating Kanban boards that show the flow of work from one stage to the next. This visual tool helps ensure that there are no bottlenecks or idle units.

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Value Through the Eyes of the Customer

When Lean thinkers talk about waste elimination, they are explicitly referring to minimizing any cost, process, or product feature that the customer wouldn’t willingly pay for. It is up to the customer to decide what constitutes value.

Value Stream Maps – Lean organizations work hard to understand how value flows to the customer. Each step of the process from product design to delivery is subject to scrutiny. A common approach is to create a value stream map of the process and look for steps that naturally provide value; those that don’t offer value, but are necessary due to current conditions; and those that are unnecessary, don’t provide value and should be targeted for elimination.

Quality by Improvement, Not Inspection

In his celebrated book, Out of the Crisis, W. Edwards Deming wrote, “Inspection does not improve the quality, nor guarantee quality. Inspection is too late. The quality, good or bad, is already in the product. As Harold F. Dodge said, "You can not inspect quality into a product.” So how do you bake quality into a product? Lean thinkers do it using a variety of improvement techniques.

DMAIC and PDSA - DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control) and PDSA (Plan, Do, Study, Adjust) are variations of the cycle for continuous improvement. Each is designed to achieve organized and productive change.

The 5 Whys – Improvement is impossible without an accurate understanding of the root cause of a process problem or product defect. The 5 Whys is an approach that asks the question, “Why?” multiple times until the underlying cause is revealed.


Lean success is dependent on standardization. After all, there must be a baseline against which improvement can be measured. Therefore, standardization is in no way a barrier to innovation.

Standard WorkStandard work is the documented current best practice for any activity or process. It is made available in the place where work is done. It contains all of the relevant details for the task and often includes documents and images. When improvements are implemented, the Standard work is updated.

So it turns out, there is a method to the madness. Looking at these techniques with this framework, it becomes clear that it is Lean thinking that brings them all together. 

Topics: Lean

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