Skip to content

In the realm of continuous improvement, lean is perhaps most associated with manufacturing. While lean was developed for the manufacturing industry, the philosophy can be applied to almost any other industry or workplace. Here, we provide tips and best practices for implementing lean strategies into your plant or shop floor.

What Is Lean Manufacturing?

As a concept, “lean” describes an approach to management designed to deliver the greatest value to the end customer while generating the least amount of waste. Efficiency is the goal of a lean business — wherein processes are completed using only the essential amounts of time, people, money, materials and other resources.

Lean manufacturing has two main goals:

  1. Identifying and creating value for the customer
    • Value = anything the customer would be willing to pay for
  2. Eliminating waste in processes
    • Waste = anything that does not add value to either the customer or the production process

Lean is the most well-known approach to continuous improvement in manufacturing, where it creates a perpetual cycle of waste identification and removal. This approach results in:

  • Increased production
  • Decreased downtime
  • Higher quality products and services
  • Fewer process and product defects
  • Streamlined inventory
  • Optimized workforce
  • Innovative, proactive employees

Lean is increasingly applied in other industries, including healthcare, transportation, education and government agencies. It can also be combined with or enhanced by other management strategies like Six Sigma for even more comprehensive process control.

5 Principles of Lean Manufacturing














When implemented successfully, lean manufacturing rests on five pillars:

  1. Defining the customer’s value. When making any changes to process, ask the following questions to determine whether the change will add value:
    • What does our customer want?
    • What would enhance the customer’s experience?
    • What service(s) are we providing that leads the customer to want to have a relationship with us?
    • What makes the customer want to pay for our service(s)?
  2. Identifying and mapping the value stream. Analyze the process of turning a customer request into a final deliverable. A visual map of the workflow can help you see where there may be extraneous, repeated or inefficient steps that could be eradicated or streamlined, since those would fall under “waste.” Of course, there will be smaller value streams within the overall value stream — it’s also important to map those out when pursuing lean operations.
  3. Create a value stream that flows without interruption or waste. Once you’ve mapped the value stream, start optimizing. Follow the value stream from end to end several times to determine its efficacy. TWI Job Methods (JM) provides an ideal framework for designing and testing new processes.
  4. Establish a pull for your customers that prioritizes timely and accurate delivery. “Pull” is the flow generated by the effects downstream activities have on upstream activities. For example, the completion of a downstream task means a task further upstream can move to the next step in the process. Kanban boards provide a visual for this flow of work.
  5. Relentlessly pursue a waste-free value stream. This is where continuous improvement becomes tangible and visible. By constantly pursuing your best time and making small, incremental changes when needed, all parties along the value stream can participate in lean.

History of Lean Manufacturing

The concept of lean manufacturing was introduced in the U.S. automotive industry by

Henry Ford, then further developed by Shigeo Shingo and Taiichi Ohno for the Toyota Corporation during the 1930s. These engineers observed activities on the factory floor and developed streamlined approaches to work processes that resulted in now-common concepts like the assembly line, just-in-time production and standard work.

“Lean” was officially defined as a management concept by researchers James Womack and Daniel Jones, who went on to found the Lean Enterprise Academy and the Lean Enterprise Institute, respectively. These institutions are currently the preeminent resources for lean research and education.

Lean manufacturing remains the most well-known application of lean management, though the practice is becoming more common in other industries.

Types of Waste in Lean Manufacturing

Lean is all about eradicating waste — but to eliminate waste, one must first understand what constitutes as waste.

Taiichi Ohno, one of the original lean innovators and designer of the Toyota Production System, identified seven forms of waste in manufacturing (Toyota later added an eighth):

Defects: A product that fails to meet customer expectations, and is therefore useless.

Overproduction: Extraneous product that does not have an end destination.

Waiting: Unused time spent in between the end of one process and the start of the next.

Non- or under-utilized talent: Skilled workers that are left without tasks or whose talents are not used to their full potential.

Transportation: Unnecessary movement of products or materials.

Inventory: Excess product that does not have a guaranteed end destination.

Motion: Extraneous movement by people, materials or products.

Excess Processing: More effort or energy is expended than what is necessary to meet customer expectations.

Tools in Lean Manufacturing

Within lean management, there are proven methods to achieving high quality work without generating waste.

Training Within Industry (TWI) is the gold standard for effective, hands-on workplace training. Developed during World War II to quickly train and upskill a new workforce, TWI continues to produce skilled, competent workers with the ability to pass on standard job instruction.

Standardized Work defines “the one best way” for any given process, providing common reference points for the way people think, observe, interact, perform tasks and operate equipment on the job.

Kata training focuses on making small, rapid changes that add up to large, organization-wide improvements over time. Kata practitioners are trained to ask standard sets of questions to determine the purpose of the work, then experiment until they achieve the optimal approach (a process called Plan-Do-Check-Act, or PDCA).

In addition to the kanban boards discussed above, there are more lean tools that specifically target waste elimination.

TPM (Total Productive Maintenance) training enables workers to perform routine maintenance on their own machines, which then increases the availability of the machines and decreases the need for downtime.

The SMED (Single-Minute Exchange of Die) system enables operators to complete as many steps of a process changeover as possible while the equipment is still running. SMED reduces downtime and helps prevent production delays.

5S is a methodology that establishes specific steps for each work process: sort, set in order, shine, standardize, sustain. (A sixth S, for safety, is sometimes included.)

Poka-yoke, which translates to something like “fool-proofing,” refers to a mechanism that prevents user error. This mechanism can either be literal (a mechanical clutch) or process-based (signing a checklist before moving onto the next step).

A control chart, also known as a Shewhart chart, enables operators to see where variations in a process occur in graph form so they can address and eliminate them.

Multi-process handling enables operators to complete a number of sequential steps in a production chain, rather than being responsible for only one step in the process.

Single-point scheduling is a planning process that takes a cue from a single upstream event (or “pacemaker”) that triggers all other events downstream.

Rank order clustering is a method of physically laying out a space so that equipment involved in the same stage of production is physically placed together, minimizing operator movement.

Lean Manufacturing Benefits

Lean is not an end destination — it is an iterative approach to management intended to scale and change along with the organization. When all members of an organization understand how to implement and follow lean practices, lean manufacturing can:

  • Reduce operating costs
  • Yield greater profits
  • Reduce lead time
  • Improve product quality
  • Eliminate defects
  • Optimize physical space
  • Cut down on excess inventory
  • Improve an organization’s value proposition
  • Introduce and facilitate more sustainable solutions
  • Ensure long term industry viability
  • Increase customer satisfaction
  • Establish a culture of improvement and innovation
  • Improve communication
  • Reduce safety hazards
  • Keep organizations and their teams agile
  • Clarify an organization’s values and mission
  • Help teams identify waste
  • Foster a passion for quality
  • Empower employees to gain new skills

Lean Manufacturing In Action
The TWI Institute has first-hand experience with lean integration in small and large-scale manufacturing facilities. Read some of our client success stories below.

Cummins Engine – Getting it All: Skills, Stability and Safety
Improving processes and operator safety through JI, JR, JM and JS.
Read Now

Fujifilm Dimatix – Stability Brings Picture-perfect Productivity
Implementing people-focused training programs to address variability, productivity and quality issues.
Read Now

Magna Powertrain, Tianjin, China – Getting People and Performance Improvement in Synch
Introducing standardization and collaboration to reduce instances of human error.
Read Now

Lean Manufacturing Disadvantages & Challenges

Lean isn’t a quick-fix solution. Implementing lean practices takes planning, time, experimentation and audits to ensure new approaches are working. Organizations that attempt to implement lean too quickly or expect fast results will become overwhelmed and may abandon their efforts too soon.

It can also be difficult to know which aspects of your organization could most benefit from a lean approach. For example, while leadership may think the shipping and handling department is responsible for fulfillment delays, they may fail to realize it’s actually a problem with excess processing early in the production line. This lack of visibility into the “big picture” risks generating even more waste, as in too much time spent addressing the wrong root cause.

There is also a risk of focusing too much on reducing waste and not enough on ensuring employee safety and wellbeing. Cutting back on time or materials should not compromise employees’ experience on the job, nor should it be prioritized over employee safety. Management and leadership should be cognizant of cutting too much perceived waste — as in, current departments or personnel that could be valuable to the future of the organization.

If lean measures are introduced without explanation, employees may see them as punitive or a sign of unwelcome change. Employees should understand the need for lean management and waste reduction measures; otherwise, they may view lean as a reflection of their performance or a precursor to layoffs. Adopting lean management in manufacturing should not come as a sweeping mandate, but rather a holistic, strategic approach to a gradual cultural change, with plenty of communication from leadership along the way.

Tips to Implement a Lean Manufacturing Process

Organizations can begin to implement lean practices into their operations, but an expert training partner can be a tremendous asset while employees work to identify waste and practice new work processes.

The most important thing to remember is that what works for one business will not necessarily work for another. In other words, don’t copy others in hopes of achieving their same measure of success. A lean approach needs to be designed specifically for your organization’s unique product, workforce and industry outlook.

Follow these other best practices when adapting to lean manufacturing:

Take stock of your entire business to see where you could cut waste, rather than just one evident “problem” area.

Seek your employees’ buy-in and support to avoid resentment or frustration at seemingly arbitrary changes.

Train employees using standard methods to ensure all team members gain the same understanding of their jobs.

Reduce waste in your workspace. Waste isn’t limited to processes or products; find ways to reduce physical waste like excess paperwork, too-large trash or overstocked utility closets.

Clearly document each new process or step. This way, you can revert back to a previous process if the new one isn’t working. Digital documentation is best, so as to limit physical paperwork.

Make small, incremental improvements on an as-needed basis. Changes won’t always result in a perfect new process the first time. If updates are needed, take it slow and small.

Regularly check in with employees to gauge the effectiveness of new changes, and seek their input when considering updates. Establish a formal process for collecting employee feedback.

Automate processes if you can. This will allow you to relocate your employees to where their skills might be more valuable.

Keep in mind that lean is a philosophy, not a set of standard operating procedures. Lean manufacturing is intended to be iterative and adjustable overtime, embodying the very nature of continuous improvement. Encourage employees to suggest changes if they see opportunities for improvement. This empowerment, more than new processes, will foster a truly lean culture in your organization.

The team at TWI Institute has decades of experience helping organizations large and small eliminate waste while benefiting from the best their teams have to offer. Send us a message today to discuss a people-first approach to lean manufacturing.

What can we help your team achieve?