Before you can run off and start using lean principles or figure out why lean is so important, you have to first ask, “What in the heck is ‘lean’ anyway?” (And then you have to get an answer.)
Lean can be defined and demonstrated many different ways, but they all come back to the same idea: operating processes as efficiently as possible.
Okay, let’s back up again. We should also define “process.” A process is a series of steps taken in order to convert something from one state to another. Assembling a heavy-duty transmission from individual parts is a process. Baking a cake starting with separate ingredients is a process. Showering (converting from a “dirty” state to a “clean” one) is a process.
Every business has many, many processes (billing customers, receiving orders, replacing a copier’s toner cartridge, scheduling meetings, stamping steel parts). Every part of life has processes (washing your car, placing an Amazon.com order, preparing spaghetti, washing the dog).
Some processes take a long time to complete (building a third manufacturing plant outside Topeka, reading Atlas Shrugged) while others take very little time (putting papers through the document shredder, taking out the trash, putting Atlas Shrugged back on the bookshelf).
Ideally, we want to complete all of these processes as efficiently as possible (dogs that like baths might disagree). We aim to finish these processes as quickly as we can and with as few defects/errors as possible, and we want to use as few of our available resources as necessary. We want to assemble that transmission quickly and correctly so we can complete our work sooner and not have to take transmissions back apart because we left a piece out. We don’t want to forget washing our face before stepping out of the shower. I want to avoid outside distractions while reading Atlas Shrugged so that I will remember what Ayn Rand wrote and won’t have to go back and re-read critical sections.
Lean thinking is what will help us be more efficient. We want to utilize our resources in the best way possible, and the lean concepts are what will get us to that point. How can we reduce the amount of time it takes to complete a process? How can we use our time and money more intelligently? What can we do to prevent doing the process incorrectly?
Now if we apply lean thinking to eliminate these wasteful steps (ahh, foreshadowing!) to every process we have at home and at work, imagine how much time and money you can save!
So to make a process lean you want to keep the steps that actually help you complete the process (value-added) and eliminate or reduce the steps that don’t (non-value-added).