Reader Question: Short Definition of Lean?


Here is a new reader question, shared with permission (as always).

The reader, who works at a hospital and health system, was asked by a colleague to provide a short definition of Lean that could be referred to on a business card. My reader hesitated as he was afraid that the person wanted a cookie cutter definition that would replace thinking.

His full email and our opportunity for discussion follows:

Here is the full email question:

I have a question I would like your help to reflect on.

I had a manager today ask me, “Can you please write down your definition of lean on a business card so we can refer to it and know what it means?”.

This is someone that has been through Lean HC 101 training, seen a number of presentations, etc., but when it comes down to how they apply it in their job, they want to get the cookie cutter definition so they do not have to think.

My initial response was to say no, but then I decided to say yes because of the particular project and intensity of what is going on (build a lean hospital).

Do you actually know of a one sentence definition for what we refer to as lean? I know we can ask for lot of clarification – you mean tool, culture, etc., I just wonder if you have some experience to define in one sentence, what exactly is lean, beyond the traditional “decrease waste” or “optimize value”, which I find is too abstract or limiting.

I will tailor this definition to the audience and need.

I'm curious to hear your thoughts (leave a comment) about:

  1. How would you have handled this situation?
  2. What single sentence would you try to use, and for what audience?

Here was my initial response to the email, with a few small edits upon reflection:

I guess I'd throw it back at them (in a non-confrontational way) and ask “how would YOU define lean in sentence?” if they already had training and exposure to Lean.

I'd be curious to hear their thoughts and what they could articulate.

Lean's hard to summarize in a sentence in a way that's not trite or not just a slogan…

What's the purpose of them having a one-sentence definition on a card? They'll just rattle it off and use it to somehow get people to go along with lean????

I agree with the reader's idea that the single-sentence definition would have to be tailored a bit depending on who you're talking to. It's not that Lean concepts are different, but the emphasis and focus you might choose in a single sentence could be varied depending on whether you're talking to a patient, a nurse, a doctor, or a hospital board member, perhaps.

Your thoughts?

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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. “Think for yourself in context”

    or use an Taiichi Ohno quote:

    “Don’t look with your eyes, look with your feet. Don’t think with you head, think with your hands.”

  2. Lean has existed without definition for more than 30 years. While there may be merit in that, and in requiring people to think for themselves, the reality is that most people do not think for themselves. Therefore, they quickly define Lean in whatever ways they like or heard from someone else. Leaders of organizations who do this (most do) give followers mistaken views of Lean that we have to expend great energy to correct later on (a rework loop).

    Lean becomes anything and everything, and loses its meaning. Over time, this leads to a great deal of confusion and profound misunderstandings and misapplications of Lean management. The wide variation in definition has reduced the meaning and significance of Lean over time, and has led to big problems – i.e. the pervasiveness Fake Lean/L.A.M.E., among other things.

    Here is a definition of Lean that I have used for many years:

    “Lean is a non-zero-sum principle-based management system focused on creating value for end-use customers and eliminating waste, unevenness, and unreasonableness using the scientific method.”

    Cumbersome? Yes. But it is accurate. I have found that this definition helps many leaders to start thinking for themselves because it contains several components that they are unfamiliar with (e.g. non-zero-sum, etc.).

  3. Prose is easy, poetry is hard. I think anything worth describing should be done in as few words as possible. A zen koan, perhaps.

    But I have no idea what that would be.


  4. Dr. John Toussaint said something like, “…. reducing costs, improving quality, and engaging staff”.

    I played this card with a number of people and it seems to satisfy.

    • I think that’s a great definition of what we’d call “true north” – the goals and drivers that Lean efforts are oriented around at ThedaCare… see Lewis’ comment below.

  5. Nice definitions above.

    It took me several years to really develop a one sentence definition of lean. Not that it truly can be done, or that one should even attempt it. That said, here’s what I tell people when asked to condense lean to one sentence. This might even fit on a business card in some variation:

    “Developing our people to deliver value to our patients in the least wasteful way.”

    Honestly, though, lean is so broad that I think it’s silly to even attempt such a concise definition. Normally when a person asks me to briefly define lean I start with the above sentence and then elaborate on what I mean by “developing,” “value,” and “waste.” It makes for a quick elevator speech…

  6. I usually go to something like “eliminating waste in all of its forms” and then make it clear that anyone who gives this answer better be ready to say more. You can’t put it all in writing – all you can do in a few words is plant a seed.

    We also use “elevator speaches” a lot – and yes, they depend on the person doing the talking (CEO, dept. Director, or front-line) as well as the audience. However, some of the best I’ve heard from management are variations on “Our goals are x, y, & z. Lean is how we will achieve those goals”.

  7. I agree that a single sentence trivializes Lean.

    I also agree that refusing to engage leaves the field open for misunderstanding or even misrepresentation.

    So…the one-sentence summary I sometimes use is:

    “Lean is obtaining the most value for the available resources”

    Eliminating waste is an ends to the means, not a goal. It doesn’t accomplish anything of itself: If you’re doing the wrong thing and you do it faster, from one perspective you’ve eliminated waste and freed up time to do more of something else. So what?

    The main Lean thinkers focused on value…which is what my definition does as well. True, you can’t also define “value” in one sentence. You’ve got to assume it means something to the reader (which may or may not be warranted).

    My sentence also focuses on doing more with the same (or implicitly, fewer) resources. I think that’s the positive side that “eliminating waste” tries to address but misses.

    Works for me and those with whom I talk anyway.


    • Jim – I agree wholeheartedly that refusing to engage would be bad. I’d prefer to ask the person who approached me to try a definition first (but only if I knew they already had lean training). I wouldn’t hold out on someone who didn’t know and was truly curious about lean. But I’d consider a sentence definition to be a starting point for a discussion (hopefully!).

  8. I’ll throw something in for consideration:

    “Lean is a commitment to the relentless pursuit of creating situations where hindrances to delivering value can be identified and eliminated.”

  9. A related call for ideas from ASQ:

    Quality in Six Words: An ASQ Weekly Challenge

    Ernest Hemingway wrote a short story using six words. Can you describe quality using the same amount of words? Of course you can! Send your “Quality in Six Words” submission to by Friday, December 3. A list of submissions will be part of a story in next week’s issue.

  10. I am reminded of the story of Hillel and Shammai, leaders of two different schools of thought in the ancient world.

    A skeptic challenged each master to teach him all of the Torah while he stood on one foot. Shammai dismissed the skeptic. Hillel accepted the challenge.
    The skeptic came to school and stood on one foot, eager to embarass the master.

    Hillel said to him:
    “Do not do unto others what you would not want done to you.
    The rest is commentary. Now go and study it.”


  11. Great dialogue!! Here is my shot

    “Lean is inspired leadership that believes in the possibility to do more good for more people (customers) and actively develops the people affiliated (stakeholders) with the organization in the technical, physical, social and cultural norms required to create a transformational environment of self-sustaining continuous improvement.”

  12. I would ask what purpose (s)he is asking for this and discuss if a biz card summazion is the best conter-measure.

    Here is what I would put on a biz card:
    A way to achieve balanced positive impacts in quality, safety, cost, delivery, and engagement by everybody participating in continuous improvement and respecting all stakeholders.

  13. I like the simpler definitions the best. Shrouding Lean in mystical explanations or inside-baseball consultant lingo makes it inaccessible to the common man/woman.

    I like to think of Lean as “a development in our long history of trying to improve how we make and deliver things to people, our customers, that helps us bring them the most benefit in their eyes that we can while spending the lease amount of time, effort, and resources in doing that.”

    Or even shorter, “giving your customers what they want when they want it, better than anyone else, in the simplest way possible while making it worth our while to do it.”

    If that interests someone, only then would I go deeper.

    Too many people worship at the Lean Altar behaving as if Lean was dropped to earth by the Gods. We have done that many times before and failed – TQM, Re-engineering, Six Sigma, and many more before these. The problem with treating it like a stand alone Miracle of Japanese Production Methods is that we employ such words as “Sensei” instead of teacher or mentor or “Muda” instead of waste as if speaking Japanese will make us more wise. People who adopt Lean as a “New Miraculous Movement” make the same mistakes we made with TQM: training everyone in the old “Sheep Dip Method” in long and expensive sessions, Instituting “Lean Councils” as if another shadow management committee will make things better, teaching all leaders to stop, listen, and then ask “what does the group think?” for issues as small as “shall we take a break?” and dropping the whole thing as soon as the market crisis hits and they’re called to do their “real job.”

    I listened in the audience when a well known CEO, a colleague of mine years earlier, pronounced Lean to be the answer to his organization’s health – a complete comprehensive system – valuing people’s input – working smarter not harder – a cultural revolution – getting us back to core values – and so on … announcing his intention to train the entire organization in Lean (a consultant’s dream). Only one problem … This is the exact same speech he gave a dozen years earlier announcing TQM to the very same organization. What’s wrong with this picture?

    As the great Pogo said “We have met the enemy and it is us!”

  14. Great discussion. I think the message depends upon the concerns and interests of the people within the particular organization. What I’ve been using lately with a group of public sector folks is “give staff a voice to provide more value-added services to more people.” In another cultural context, I would likely say something different.

  15. Mark,
    This scenario has played out in my time as a lean advocate and practitioner several times over the years.  People seem to want the quick answer, and who appear to have very little patience listening to any description more than 30 seconds long.  As I’m one to make the most of every opportunity, I’ve always attempted to give a short answer; one that I hope will stir interest so that they want to know more.  After some consideration (and previous attempts to paraphrase what I’ve gathered from the household names in lean thinking), I’ve settled on the following “business-card sized definition”:  Lean is the harmonization of all resources (time, people skills and knowledge, capital, processes, etc…) to satisfy customer needs.
    Now, with that short statement we can extrapolate into all kinds of complexity that lead to misunderstandings.  Example: who is the customer?  We can say that there is “the” customer, the one who ultimately decides if value has been presented by exchanging something of value to obtain it.  Then another says, “What about the shareholders, or the employees or the suppliers, or society in general?”  Ok, what about them?  Each of these are customers, too.  Of course; how else would harmonization occur if their needs were excluded?
    Problem solving:  lean is about solving the customer’s problems.  Correct, if we solve the customer’s problems we satisfy customer needs.
           One other example:  some say lean is about elimination of waste, and providing value as the customer defines value.  Sure, wouldn’t this be consistent with “the harmonization of all resources”?  We would not waste time or materials for instance and say that we’ve accomplished our intent.
           By this simple definition we can test whether what we are doing and calling “lean” is a thinking system, a philosophy, a process, a set of tools or worse a cost reduction method.  One major difficulty for Western management in embracing lean is their reluctance to let go of past “success” based on MBA models involving traditional cost accounting GAAP, annual budget gamesmanship, management by objectives, command and control and the other dinosaurs.

  16. Mark:  I love the dialogue the past two days on the blog.  I hope you will recall our short discussion about the KCOE definition of lean and operational excellence.  The dilemma faced by the healthcare leader regarding a “short” definition of lean is exactly why we hold that lean (eliminating waste from processes using tools like (kanban, andon, flow, pull, etc.) is a sub-system of operational excellence (the contemporary, cultural adaptation of the Toyota Way and the Toyota Production System).  If you readers are curious about our contradistinctions, they may want to read some excerpts from a speech I made earlier this year:
    The Condition of Lean in North America

  17. “The pursuit of excellence through the power of people.”

    “Simplify, simplify, simplify.”

    “Always asking yourself: Is there a better way?”

    “Empowering employees to do the best job they can.”

    “A never-ending journey to make things better.”

  18. “Relentlessly and systematically adapting and applying age-old common sense to the uncommonly complex and modern problem of maximizing customer satisfaction by tapping into ALL existing resources.”

    Probably does not encompass all connotations (and probably would qualify as more than a sentence in business-speak), but its my 2 cents in a rather large pot.

    Mark, if you are not going to attempt to boil all of these down to haiku compactness, I volunteer to attempt the impossible.

  19. I’m forever the pragmatist. I don’t think that Lean will remain the system and process we think it is today. Regardless of the improvement or optimization system in place, the value of those systems is in the metaphors and stories that allow users/participants to understand the value of using that system within their current context. Some time in the future the “next great thing” in quality (or process) improvement will have new stories and new metaphors that better engage the imagination of the recepients (although I think there is a tremendous future for Lean in that we can continue to create meaningful stories surrounding it to engage organizations for decades to come).

    If I was to create a tagline for Lean, it would be “Chasing Excellence”… but that tagline could be used for a number of systems/methodologies and all likelihood would be just as meaningful when the “next great thing” in quality improvement comes along.

    PT Wonk

    • “Perfection is not attainable. But if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.” Vince Lombardi

      So I’d suggest “Chasing perfection” over “Chasing excellence”

      • Perfection evokes thought of “perfectionist” and “perfectionism”… both pergoritive or negative terms in many people’s minds (I don’t think it has helped any applicant for a job I’m interviewing for for them to state proudly, “I’m a perfectionist”).

        Pursuing excellence just seems more noble in my mind. Lombardi is correct that we can catch excellence by chasing perfection, but excellence is still ephemeral… limited to the context of the moment… after which we need to set our goals higher.

        • Interesting discussion there. The same words mean different things to different people. The new book on Virginia Mason and their lean efforts, at one point the author (quoting the CEO) emphasizes that they only goals they’ll accept are ZERO or 100%, depending on the situation. The goal is zero patient harm and 100% employee satisfaction. I like aiming high – as long as you aren’t beating up people for not being perfect, I think having a goal of perfection is the right thing to do. Who wants a goal of harming X number of patients?

          Again, the goal is different than a “target” or something that’s being used to punish people.

          Off topic from the initial point of this post, I realize…

          • When I visited Sango (Tier 1 Toyota supplier in Japan), someone in our tour group asked the VP there (ex-Toyota) about what he thought about Six Sigma. His response was that their goal wasn’t six sigma but 0.

            From what I understand this is the difference between True North (perfection, potentially unattainable) and the next Target Condition (concrete, attainable, on the path towards True North).

  20. Lean is a particular way of approaching the continuous improvement of customer focused supply chains, with an emphasis on simplification and responsiveness to customer demand. It includes reducing unnecessary steps, optimizing resources, eliminating unnecessary time to delivery and waits, and activating the process with a customer request rather than a supplier push.

    “Doing the most for the customer with the least amount of resources, effort and time.”

    “The least effort for the most value!”

  21. How about a single joke that defines lean (just to lighten things up, and besides, it works…). Paraphrased from Johnny Hart’s “B.C.” who was (knowingly or not) paraphrasing Rodin…

    B.C.: How did you make such an amazing likeness of Peter?
    Sculptor: I just took a big hunk of granite and chipped away everything that didn’t look like him!

    In my teaching, I use this (with graphic – how about that, a one IMAGE definition!) as a lead-in to this one sentence definition:
    What is lean? Chipping away at waste – day after day, month after month, year after year – striving to expose the perfect image of customer defined value.

    • I’ve heard some people say that they get offended hearing ‘common sense’ because it implies it is their fault for not doing or thinking Lean previously. Lean only seems like ‘common sense’ in hindsight. I prefer not calling it ‘common sense’ because of the way people might react negatively to being told they don’t have common sense.

      • I couldn’t agree more. This is something that you have to be very sensitive too. But I’ve also found that when talking to people that know very little about Lean it is tough to give them a definition containing Lean terms such as value added, customer focus, and elimination of waste that have previously not been defined to them along with buzz words or technical jargon. I find that they walk away thinking Lean is just about efficiency and cost savings based on their own assumptions. This is definitely a tough thing to define down into one sentence.

      • Yes, I avoid comparing Lean to common sense. In fact, I keep finding Lean is pretty counterintuitive for most people. Worse, is demonstrating some examples of Lean and having a new client say, “We already do that.”

        Almost always, the honest response to that declaration is: “No, you’d don’t.” But that might be a bit harsh on the first day.

        • I agree….I find the first year or so is full of ego as we try to learn by comparing what we don’t know to what we already know…human beings are so sensitive

  22. I always try to enhance the human and mental aspects of lean when teaching so I said my students that “Lean is a state of mind that will help each member of the organization to provide the most to the final goals”


  23. Isn’t the time getting close for Lean to be abandoned only to rise again like the proverbial Phoenix from the ashes under a “new” moniker and a new best-selling book? Once enough organizations spend enough money and time “executing” Lean poorly, Lean will go to the Muda pile on top of Systems Engineering, TQM, Re-engineering, Six Sigma, and good ole elbow grease and dedication.

    One can identify the future “Muda Kaisen Mental Model Paradigms” by the weight of their training manuals, the “new language” that must be learned, the massiveness of their organizational training sheep dip, the spin that “this one” relegates all the “others” to the muda-heap of history, and number of Steering Committees established.

    I’m concerned that Lean, a profound methodology and attitude added to the long history of our thinking about improving production and value, may be repeating the mistakes of the past. I think we do well by our clients by keeping it simple, using common english, integrating it with long established concepts, experience and wisdom.

    It’s much less glamourous and reduces the revenues of training companies and manual production businesses but in the end I think it will have a quicker, more robust, and longer lasting impact.

  24. I am really appreciative of the interest in this topic, seems like a common challenge for the lean coaches. If we keep this in purely layman terms, I think we have to emphasize “on-going leadership and people development to create the environment for innovation and problem solving to eliminate waste”. Great thread!!!

  25. I’ve been really interested to see how many definitions of Lean focus only on eliminating waste.

    My view is that getting rid of a negative is a much smaller charter than adding positives. In other words, that Lean is about increasing value delivery, in many ways…not just about reducing waste.

    But I seem to be in a minority on this. I’m not being sarcastic; I’d really like to hear what people are thinking. Is it true that most workers in the Lean community view Lean as all about waste…and implicitly, that removing waste is the best (or perhaps, only?) way to increase the amount of value delivered for a given amount of resources expended?

    • I agree strongly James, that Lean is not just about reducing waste – it can be about creating more value for customers (or patients). It’s not always about reducing costs, sometimes Lean is a great growth strategy for an organization. Dr. Goldratt, of Theory of Constraints fame, always said cost can only go down to zero, but revenue could be infinite. Smart man.

      • I agree, as well, James. Thank you for articulating this.

        I get particular satisfaction, as a lean consultant, when I can provide some value for a group of people so that they improve their own processes and actually feel not just empowered but en-couraged to keep improving. Just had two days of this with a lot of people in all those long processes in central office functions. And they were stoked to start simplifying their processes and engaging their colleagues in work that flows more and gets stuck less. Dilbert be damned!

  26. I applaud the creativity that has gone into these definitions, some of the phasing will be helpful in discussions about improvement efforts.

    I do think defining lean may be a waste, since lean is not the goal but a tool to achieve a particular “future state”. While this is not answering the letter of the question asked, I think it does address the spirit of “what is lean”. I would suggest that when asked about lean the response should focus on the critical issues and goals of the organization. Perhaps something like “Right now we are using the lean tools to reduce central line infection rates from 6% to zero.” or ” Last month we use the lean tools to reduce patient wait time at diagnostic imaging from 22 minutes to no more than 3 min.” If this creates interest in the other person perhaps they will follow up on it, if not then you have met their need without “overproduction”.

  27. My elevator pitch for lean is that it:

    improves flow of value, by engaging participants, improving quality, reducing waste, and removing clutter“.

    I don’t mention cost, because when you focus on reducing cost you too often end up increasing it … and any initiative that starts with reducing cost as it’s first principle tends to undermine engagement and quality, resulting in a poorer customer experience, which ultimately has a bigger impact on the bottom line.


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