Within the context of process improvement, ‘Lean’ refers to an improvement methodology and overall management philosophy aimed at three things. These are: decreasing waste (as seen through the eyes of the customer), increasing speed and optimizing customer value in an organization’s processes. It does so through both a variety of tools, techniques and structures and a set of management principles and cultural mechanisms.

‘Lean’, ‘Lean Management’, or ‘Lean Production’ are terms used to refer to a westernized interpretation of the Toyota Production System (as introduced and employed by Toyota during the post-WWII era), based on the works of several researchers on the topic, such as John Krafcik and James Womack.

Nowadays ‘Lean’ and ‘Toyota Production System’ are often confused with one another or even used interchangeably. As it is difficult to determine one ‘pure’ school of Lean, it is increasingly often considered as an umbrella term for a family of process improvement methodologies and management philosophies with a similar background and origin. To add extra complexity to the matter, Lean is also often combined with the Six Sigma methodology under the umbrella term ‘Lean Six Sigma’.

Lean is most often linked to the manufacturing industry, in particular the automotive industry from which it borrows its roots. Nowadays it has also been made applicable to other sectors such as service and healthcare. Its main focus lies on the daily and systematical detection and eradication of wasteful activities and steps within an organization’s processes. In this context waste is defined as anything that does not directly contribute value to the customer or business.

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