"lean" is not "Lean"


    The Middle Seat – WSJ.com:

    Here's an example of the every day use of the word “lean” that, unfortunately, means just about the exact opposite of what we mean with “Lean Manufacturing” or the Toyota Production System:

    “Just like airport delays, bumped passengers and other travel problems this year, the British Airways baggage system shows how airlines have made operations so lean and taxed infrastructure so fully that problems compound exponentially for customers.”

    In this article about BAA losing so many suitcases and giving generally horrible service, the word “lean” really means that they are cut so close to the bone that they're ineffective.

    Lean is about effectiveness, not having “lean staff” (not enough people) or “lean budgets” (not enough money).

    That every day use is one of the problems with the term “Lean,” isn't it?

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    Mark Graban
    Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


    1. It is an odd usage. The Toyota approach seems to be reducing variation to create capacity, and in fact, have a surplus of people and monetary resources. One of their ways to reduce variation is to have plenty of extra manpower, and more flexible manpower to close gaps when people are sick or on vacation, or when machines go down and so forth. Lean in inventory and lead time, fat in people and production capacity. Quite the opposite of “lean.”

    2. Since the word lean has multiple meanings, maybe its time for a new word to describe “lean” as the TPS and similar work to reduce waste and improve flexibility. When speaking to those whose native language is not English, “lean” can be eve more confusing.

      What is another word we can use?

    3. This far into the game, I think we’re somewhat stuck with the work, at a global level. Now, for a local effort, you might choose to not say “Lean” at all, but be prepared to explain to the outside world what you’re doing is “Lean.”

    4. A nasty acronym was given to me for the word “lean” a few years ago : Less Employees Are Needed. I didn’t care for it then and I still don’t care for it now. It’s this popular misunderstanding of what Lean is that makes our job difficult. That and the fact that too many companies used Lean for cutting head count.

    5. I think Kevin is onto something with the name change.

      How about we stick with TPS but simply refer to it as the “Thinking” Production System.

      That, in an essence, is what I believe people like Ohno and Shingo and even Deming were really challenging us to do – think!


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