What is Lean Thinking?

Lean: it really is all about common sense and learning to see waste. Every organisation should benefit from a bit of lean thinking, by focusing on what we’ll call value added activities.

Lean is a term coined by researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) back in the late 80s. They were trying to figure out why Toyota was so much more efficient at producing cars than, for example, Ford or GM. They chose the term ‘lean’ to try and describe what they’d discovered. With ‘lean’ they were describing a process without a lot of unnecessary work.

Unnecessary work is all work that does not add value to the customer. And, as with your body, a lean company is something to strive for. Having said that, not all fat is bad. It is all about a healthy balance. This goes for our bodies, but just as much for our processes and organisations.

Lean, to me, means ‘flow’. According to several dictionaries, flow can be defined as:

“to move in a continuous and smooth way” (Webster’s)


“to move in one direction, especially continuously and easily” (Cambridge).

As a word, Lean has become part of the business vocabulary. I use it because many people will have an idea of what I am talking about. However the term ‘Flow’ captures the goal much better.

Why does Lean thinking work?

Any process should be organised in such a way as to enable the movement of parts or information in a continuous and smooth way. There are many tools and methods that help to achieve this, but ultimately that is what I try to do. Asking simple common sense questions is often all we need to do to get a better flow state.

The results will invariably include less stress, less variation in the process, happier people, higher quality and, as a result of all of this, lower costs.

A brilliant book that describes the essence of what I am talking about is called ‘This is Lean’ by Niklas Modig. If you are interested in more detail about lean and flow, I can also recommend that you read material from Jim Womack.

In summary, lean is all about making things flow by applying common sense and by challenging the status quo. Simple as that.