Can Lean methodology be the transformative approach your business needs to improve efficiency and profitability?

For business leaders and managers tasked with improving their companies, there needs to be an ongoing effort to reduce waste and inefficiency. One of the most popular ways to focus on that mission is to employ Lean methodology principles. This comprehensive set of principles has a proven track record of creating value for customers while improving company efficiency, teamwork, and organizational culture. But what is Lean methodology and how can you implement its principles in your workplace?

In this post, we'll explore Lean methodology and its history, examine the five principles of this method, and consider some of its most important benefits. We'll also offer some invaluable tips that you can use to implement the Lean model in your company.

What is Lean methodology?

Lean methodology is a business strategy that enables companies to focus their attention on delivering more value to customers by reducing inefficiencies and improving productivity. At its core, it emphasizes appreciation for people - including employees and customers - and a belief that every aspect of business has room for improvement. The methodology is built around a set of principles and best practices that seek to eliminate waste from any company's workflow, to ensure that everything the company does provides real value to its customers.

The origins of the Lean model

Experts attribute the origin of Lean methodology to a single company: Toyota. More than seventy years ago, Toyota's leadership embarked on a mission to eliminate inefficiencies and focus their operations entirely on product value. They subsequently changed or eliminated every process that did not affirmatively contribute to providing more value to customers. Their efforts resulted in dramatic improvements to processes and the company's bottom line.

Decades later, the term Lean methodology was applied to Toyota's method as other companies began to experience similar levels of success by following the same principles.

What are the 5 principles of Lean methodology?

One of the most attractive features of Lean methodology is that the same five fundamental principles apply to almost all organizations, no matter the industry. Those principles include:

Identification of value

Everything starts with an effort to identify value within the company's processes. The goal is to ensure that the company can deliver its goods and services to customers at prices that they are willing to pay. This requires companies to know their customers and their desires, so that they understand how to meet those needs.

Mapping the value stream

With value identified, the next step is to map the entire value stream, from initial product concept and design to its purchase and use by customers. Companies need to understand a product's lifecycle if they are to identify waste that needs to be trimmed. The Lean method identifies all inefficiencies - defined as anything that fails to add real value to production processes - as waste which must be eliminated.

Waste can include unnecessary logistical obstacles, disorganization in the work process, imbalances in inventory, defects in production, a failure to properly use human resources, and other poor organizational and production practices. Companies that move to eliminate waste refocus their attention on optimizing value-added priorities like customer service, quality control, and other processes that help to satisfy customer needs.

Creating an efficient and continuous workflow

Once the value stream has been mapped out, the next step is to identify all those areas of waste that could potentially be trimmed. In many instances, each production process stage contains some level of inefficiency that can be improved. The process of systematically eliminating these instances of waste helps to create greater efficiency and a more continuous workflow. This occurs as different departments and stages of the production process come into more harmonious alignment with one another.

It's important to note that this process of improving value stream continuity is ongoing. The goal is to create and then maintain a synchronized workflow that ensures that production processes continue to flow in a way that maintains an efficient value stream. This smooth workflow enables a company to keep costs low, optimize production efficiencies, and deliver products to customers as they need them.

Developing a pull system

Any organization that continuously produced products at a steady rate would end up creating waste if it ended up producing more goods than the market can bear. To avoid that, Lean methodology requires the creation of a pull system. The pull system acts as a counterweight to the value stream and exists to ensure that your production does not exceed demand. This Lean principle only has employees working on production when demand requires it.

For example, Lean Agile methodology tools like Kanban boards can be used to create visual process flow representations to better manage workflow. These boards and similar tools can organize work in a visual way, to help managers and production teams focus on the right tasks at the right time. Pull systems and the tools that facilitate them are invaluable components in Lean methodology.

Prioritizing improvements

The fifth, and arguably the most important, principle of Lean methodology is that improvements need to be ongoing and continuous. When a company prioritizes these continuous improvements, it can ensure that inefficiencies don't creep back into production processes by targeting and eliminating potential problems before they become major challenges or systemic inefficiencies.

One example of this type of prioritization of improvement is the standard stand-up meeting that many large companies use to start each day. These meetings typically involve managers meeting with members of their team to highlight recent progress, discuss notable areas of concern, and provide forecasts about potential issues that may arise. When done properly, these meetings can improve team cohesion, raise awareness of potential problems, and motivate everyone to focus on desired process improvements.

What benefits can Lean provide?

Incorporating the Lean methodology into your company's organizational and operational processes can offer many advantages. To get a better understanding of how these principles could boost your company's efficiency and profitability, just consider the following potential benefits.

Improved interactions with customers

Lean methodology is necessarily focused on maximizing value for customers. As a result, the model requires open interactions with customers to determine their needs and monitor their satisfaction levels to ensure that company processes are meeting expectations. Consistent commitment to Lean can enable customers to always feel as though their needs are being considered, which creates the type of customer experience that fuels greater brand loyalty over time.

Reduced costs

Inefficiencies are a waste of resources like time, money, and manpower. Any effort that focuses on eliminating that waste will result in a lowering of cost, as unnecessary processes are changed or eliminated to improve efficiency. Ultimately, this reduced cost will help to increase profitability for the organization.

Less production errors

Since Lean principles typically lead to the elimination of inefficient processes, the methodology should reduce production errors. Remember, every part of the production process comes with a potential for mistakes to be made. A simplified process will provide fewer opportunities for errors to occur. That can lead to improved product quality and a subsequent boost in customer satisfaction.

Enhanced inventory and production control

By aggressively applying Lean methodology, companies can gain greater control over inventory management and production. By using pull systems to respond to customer demand, they can ensure that there are fewer products sitting in warehouses and that production is properly aligned with consumer needs.

Boosted employee morale

Many of the most successful companies understand the importance of ensuring that every team member's input on processes is heard and respected. Lean methodology can serve as a valuable avenue for inspiring employee engagement. That can boost morale, provide them with a renewed sense of empowerment, and encourage greater focus on high quality production.

Consistent improvements

One of the most important benefits companies can enjoy from applying Lean methodology principles is the avoidance of stagnation. Lean requires companies to continually evaluate their processes to identify potential waste, and that effectively creates a culture of improvement and innovation which can help to ensure that your company continues to focus on value.

Increased productivity

Because Lean methodology relies on improved team cohesion and engagement, it typically leads to improvements in production at the employee level. Team members who feel valued will be happier at work and more engaged in their roles. Over time, those increases in productivity can create even greater efficiencies which have the potential to further enhance profitability.

Potential downsides of Lean methodology

Of course, no business methodology is without its potential downsides and Lean methodology is no exception. Moreover, the implementation of Lean can sometimes be a messy affair as employees, managers, and other stakeholders adjust to a new way of thinking. Below, we've outlined some of the most common potential issues that you might encounter when you begin to apply Lean methodology principles within your organization.

Immediate costs

For companies that are not accustomed to the principles of Lean, the initial implementation can be costly. Often, new equipment, technological systems, and software will need to be acquired to begin implementation. Managers and team members will need to undergo training to ensure that they have the knowledge and tools needed to make the transition. While those costs are often recouped over time, the initial expenditure can be a real challenge for many firms.

Transition obstacles

Big changes are always difficult, so it's important to remember that transition to Lean thinking may not occur as smoothly as you might like. Employees who are accustomed to doing things one way may not readily adapt to a new method. They may also struggle to focus on needed changes, since it can be difficult to identify waste when dealing with familiar processes.

Managerial unfamiliarity with Lean

For managers who are unfamiliar with Lean principles, implementation can sometimes result in excessive structuring. To avoid this, it is essential to invest time and resources to ensure that managers understand exactly how to compartmentalize and assess each of your production steps the right way.  

Obtaining team buy-in

You may find that some employees are resistant to the change you're seeking to implement. Familiarity can lead to complacency and employees who have been with your company for a long time may struggle to adapt to your vision. If you're going to implement Lean methodology, make sure that you've secured buy-in before you start.

Tips to help you implement the Lean model

Obviously, any manager or leader should carefully consider the pros and cons of Lean methodology before attempting to implement it within their company. If you've conducted that assessment and determined that Lean principles can help your organization to improve its processes, the following tips can help you with that implementation.

Bring your team along for the ride

Since you'll need your entire team to be on board with the change, you should communicate your goals to them and get their full buy-in. Be clear about your intent, the assistance you'll need from them, and your goal, and explain how the methodology can benefit them.

Start focusing on value now

There's no time like the present to begin focusing on value. Make the idea of product and process value an integral part of your thought process and communications to stakeholders. Successful implementation of the Lean methodology requires the right mindset, so start developing it immediately.

Commit to training

One way to boost employee engagement is to show them that you're committed to their development. Think about ways that you can offer training to your team members to show that dedication. By investing in them, you'll boost their morale, help them to focus on value, and make any transition to Lean principles a smoother process.

Could Lean methodology be the transformative change your company needs?

Like most living organisms, businesses need to grow and improve if they want to survive and thrive. The Lean methodology can provide a value-focused way to reduce inefficiencies, improve production, and increase profitability and customer satisfaction. If you're a manager or leader looking for an effective way to achieve those goals, Lean principles may offer the solution you need.

Are you a manager or leader looking to advance your career? Make sure that you get your free resume review from our team of experts today, to ensure that your resume has what it takes to help you land that key interview and job offer.

Recommended reading:

Related Articles: