What is Lean Thinking?

11 February 2021

Lean Management Lean Six Sigma

A brief article on Lean Thinking for those not yet in the know

In this brief article, we examine the origin of the term, its actual meaning and the core concepts contained in the school of thought referred to as ‘Lean Thinking’. But not before we have a roundabout discussion on whether it is just a book or an entire methodology.

There are roughly two ways to answer this question; one which describes Lean Thinking as a school of thought, mindset and business methodology, another as a book detailing these very same ideas.

School of thought

So if we were to ask this question within the context of the term’s modern usage, then we would usually arrive at some minor variation of the following: Lean Thinking is a school of thought aimed at organizing activities and processes to optimize the value created for customers (and in extension society as a whole) and to minimize wastefulness in all its forms. Variations usually include the scope of what Lean Thinking is, some referring to it as a mindset that is integral to all things ‘Lean’, whereas others might say it is a business methodology unto itself. At its core however, it remains concerned with thinking about value, waste and how to organize activities and process according to optimizing the former and minimizing the latter.


Of course, we could also ask the question in a historical perspective, with which we would arrive at a somewhat different answer. The term ‘Lean Thinking’ originates from the title of a book written by James P. Womack and Daniel T. Jones, published in 1996. This book extensively details the very school of thought mentioned in our other answer, which further elaborates upon key concepts from their previous book ‘The Machine that Changed the World’ (1990).

Yes, but what IS Lean Thinking?

Well, usually when using the term, people refer to the former answer, with the latter merely being the term’s origin story. However, it should be noted that the book never attempts to establish all of its concepts under the moniker of the book title. But this is a moot point, as the book did achieve this, regardless of the writer’s motives. For example, whether you are a believer or not, Jesus Christ never established his ideas under the name ‘Christianity’, nor did he establish any of the formal religious structures operating today. Yet this in no way affects their legitimacy or their relevance, both from a modern and a historical perspective.

Let’s go with school of thought then…

And through this roundabout reasoning, we now conclude that our first answer would have been sufficient. Still, keep in mind that this very school of thought can also be called ‘Lean’, ‘Lean Enterprise’ or any other similar term. In the end, it is about the concepts, strategies and techniques, not the umbrella term under which they are employed.

Key concepts

But now that we have ceased pussyfooting around the question, let’s discuss these core concepts briefly, so that you will have a better idea of what Lean Thinking is about. The core concepts of Lean Thinking are described as the ‘Five principle of Lean’, sometimes referred to as the ‘five principles of Womack’ or ‘the Womack model’.

The five principles of Lean can be visualized as a cycle of sorts, or as a step-by-step strategy for the continuous improvement of an organization’s activities and processes. The principles are

1. Define Value
2. Map the Value Stream
3. Create Flow
4. Establish Pull
5. Pursue Perfection

Define Value

Defining Value has to do with defining what is to be considered value and waste regarding the organization’s business model and the perspective of its customers. Activities can either add customer value, business value (necessary waste) or be wasteful. Waste is often categorized in seven categories, although how these are interpreted is also dependent on the organization’s specific business model, strategy and the customer demand. The model or acronym most used for these categories is called TIM WOODS.

Map the Value Stream

Once you have determined the organization’s definitions of value and waste, you move on to mapping the value stream of its processes. To oversimplify it, you figure out how your processes are structured and if (and to what extent) the activities they are made up of add value or are wasteful. Take a look at our Online Value Stream Mapping Course!

Create Flow

Creating Flow means taking out waste, optimizing customer value and minimizing business value in all of the processes. This will almost always lead to decreased lead times and more efficient organization of logistics regarding time and money, although this is once again an oversimplification.

Establish Pull

Establishing Pull means adjusting your processes to actual customer demand rather than forecasts. Usually this has to do with adjusting production volumes to customer demand to prevent overproduction and inventory and to make an organization more agile. Kanban is the method most often employed to achieve this.

Pursue Perfection

Pursuing perfection is not just a hollow hype phrase, but comprises the idea that whenever improvements are made according to the previous steps, you should not only standardize them as the ‘new way of working’, but also continue repeating the steps to improve upon them. It means not thinking of perfection as a static goalpost, but as one that is dynamic and ever-moving upwards, requiring a continuous effort to pursue it. That’s what we call ‘Continuous Improvement’, which is the key mindset in almost all methodologies connected to Lean, Six Sigma and even Agile.


Start thinking Lean

We hope this article helped you make sense of what Lean Thinking is and maybe even planted the first seeds of its mindset into your noggin’. If you’re interested in learning more, you can always take a look at our online Yellow Belt course to get better acquainted with the main principles. Or if your ambitions surpass those of a basic understanding, get started with our Lean Thinking Pack and learn everything there is to learn!

Whatever path you choose, it’s never a bad idea to get started with Lean Thinking. And we wish you good luck on the rest of your Continuous Improvement journey!

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