Lean Manufacturing Definition…As We See It…

The Truth is, Lean Manufacturing is Still Being Defined by those who Practice it and those who Teach it.

If you think that sounds strange, or you don’t quite believe it, just look at our Lean Manufacturing Glossaryand then go to any other Lean Manufacturing Glossary out there on the net, and you will see the Lean Manufacturing Lexicon is still evolving.

The Toyota Production System (TPS) is certainly a major part of what has become Lean Manufacturing, but both approaches/systems have some differences that are key to understanding each one separately.

Once you understand TPS you’ll see how many of it’s components and characteristics have been integrated into Lean Manufacturing. The point of this page is not to explain all of their differences, but there are some interesting comparisons on Wikipedia if you are interested in some extra curricular Reading. Just look up “Lean Manufacturing” and “Toyota Production System” at Wikipedia

So Let’s Define Lean Manufacturing

We hate to do it, but we have to start our definition of Lean Manufacturing with a brief disclaimer: Since Lean Manufacturing is an evolving concept not everyone will agree with our definition. It should be noted that our definition of Lean Manufacturing is every bit as much a descriptive narrative, as a definition. You should also note that Lean Manufacturing is very often referred to as “Lean Production.”

Lean Production or Lean Manufacturing is a manufacturing/production system best characterized as relentlessly eliminating waste from all of its’ activities and operations. Lean strives to produce products (and deliver services):

  • On-Time
  • Using as few resources as possible
  • Better than competitors
  • Faster & Cheaper than competitors
  • While Eliminating as Much Waste as Possible

Lean Manufacturing is the “umbrella” under which many manufacturing improvement tools are housed. Some examples include:

  • SMED: Single Minute Exchange of DIE
  • TPM: Total Productive Maintenance
  • 5S: Visual Workplace or Visual Factory
  • KanBan: Work Signaling System
  • 2-Bin: Materials Replenishment system
  • Error & Mistake-Proofing: A perfect process tool
  • Level-Loading (Heijunka): For producing mixed quantities and styles of products
  • Inventory Reduction
  • Kaizen Events (a.k.a. Kaizen Blitzes or Improvement Events)
  • Continuous Improvement (and “Lean Culture Change”)
  • (And the list goes on…)

A Few More Thoughts on Lean Manufacturing…

There are some popular ways to begin Implementing Lean Manufacturing. These include creating a “Value Stream Map” (VSM) and focusing your initial efforts on a critical area of your company. This can be followed by sequentially addressing the elements in the VSM according to priority and greatest “bang-for-the-buck” opportunities.

Others will start their Lean Manufacturing Process by implementing a 5S Visual Workplace system in order to “clean things up” before they engage in major improvement events. In some cases a 5S event is absolutely needed before many of the other Lean Manufacturing Tools can begin…we’ve seen that a time or two over the years!

Lean Manufacturing can also be initialized and driven, by putting a focus on Inventory Reduction. We have used this approach to getting Lean many times, as inventory, in its’ many forms, will often point to wastes that exist even in a fairly Lean environment.

TOC or (Theory of Constraints) is another framework used to help companies begin their Lean Implementation. Although TOC is a different approach than Lean, it is not wholly incompatible with Lean Principles. In many ways the main “Constraint” of a company, as well as many of its’ “Bottlenecks,” will be among the very highest priorities when Lean Manufacturing efforts are begun, and throughout the entire Lean Implementation process. We see many parallels and much compatibility between Lean Manufacturing and TOC.

In truth, there are unlimited ways to begin and facilitate the implementation of your Lean Manufacturing Program. Although we encourage companies to start their Lean efforts with something that will make a major, even bottom-line difference, it is more important to start getting Lean, than to talk about getting Lean year after year as some companies do.

Widely adopted throughout the world, and gaining ground in less industrialized nations, Lean Manufacturing has become a global standard or set of practices which virtually all companies must adopt in order to be competitive in a global economy.

Beyond the “need” to compete globally, Lean Manufacturing Principles and Processes (even the Lean Mindset) empowers and motivates employees to engage in the betterment of their respective companies. And no kidding, helping your company implement Lean Manufacturing is also great fun, and a tremendous achievement

For all that was said about Lean in this brief article, there is much more that hasn’t been said. If your company needs to be more competitive, improve bottom-line results, and truly engage your workforce in its’ improvement, Lean Manufacturing is the best system available to help you reach those goals.

Lean Manufacturing is Better than un-Lean Manufacturing! That little bit of “simple wisdom” is why we coined the term:


P.S. As an aside; we have a brief article on “Lean Production” that has a very short summary of what Lean is about.