lean transformation

By Tony Heath, PhD, CPHQ, Lean & Six Sigma Consultant at Optum

How is Lean thinking different?

It is of no surprise that lean experts see the world differently than the rest of us. This perspective is commonly referred to as “lean thinking,” perhaps due to the book by the same name.

The concept of lean thinking reminds me of all the other kinds of thinking that pundits recommend. For example, there is strategic thinking, the quest of MBA students everywhere. There is also systems thinking, the gold standard for responsible humanists.

When James Womack and David Jones first wrote the book Lean Thinking in 1996, lean was new to most westerners and fundamentally different from the other known ways of thinking.

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5 Lean Principles

Womack and Jones described how lean masters approach improvement and what they do. This approach to lean was articulated as the 5 principles of lean:

  • Correctly specify value so you are providing what the customer actually wants
  • Identify your value streams for products and services and remove the wasted steps that don’t create value
  • Make the remaining value-creating steps flow continuously to drastically shorten throughput times
  • Allow the customer to pull value from your rapid-response value streams as needed, rather than pushing products toward the customer on the basis of forecasts
  • Never relax and seek perfection, which is the delivery of pure value instantaneously with zero waste.

This is clearly a list of concepts (value, pull, flow, perfection, and waste) rather than a description of how to think. How to think would provide something different.

Consider the differences between the analytic thinkers and the abstract or artistic thinkers you know. The former are masters of plodding realism and the latter often have visionary leaps and associations. These two groups think differently than each other.

More ways than 1

Perhaps it would help to construct a category scheme for the how of thinking.[1]

  • Perception – People vary in how they perceive the world. Some characteristically see individual events/objects and others have a bigger picture view including relationships among events/objects. Some focus, some scan, and some alternate between the two.
  • Analysis – Some people analyze logically, one step at a time, while others “sleep on it” and awake with understanding. Some attend more to people and feelings while others stick to the facts. Some demand numbers and spreadsheets while others want “a feel” for the problem.
  • Action – While not a way of thinking per se, action flows from thought. Some people are happy to command, lecture, and direct. Others prefer a gentler approach, asking, coaching, and supporting others.

How it works

In Western culture we assume that as we grow up and interact with the world, our experiences — including formal and informal education — affect how we perceive, analyze, and act on the world. Imagine a girl with natural singing talent. Her parents, friends and teachers encourage her and soon she’s in the school play, taking voice lessons, and practicing day and night. She becomes increasingly attuned to sounds and may imagine birds’ songs on musical scales. She learns to see her audiences’ reactions and to trust the voice coach. She learns vocal warm ups and understands how to care for her voice. And she learns to perform.

Thinking Lean

I expect that those of us who become Lean practitioners follow a similar course. We start with some aptitude for process improvement. Perhaps we are fixers or curious about how things work, and there is usually some empathy for others. I’d also guess that most of us share an intuitive interest in the scientific method. Then through formal and informal education, practice and more practice, coaching, and attention to results, the way we think begins to change. We begin to perceive the world as value and waste — and we develop a feel for the desires of customers. We sense the pull of the customer even when our processes don’t. We may sense the mood of the process owner and workers and learn to sniff out objections.

Our analysis of the world evolves, too, and we learn to count cycle and TAKT times, piles of inventory, and analyze the costs of waste vs. the benefits of value. We learn to identify root causes and to monitor progress and measure savings. With experience, we also identify patterns in both problems and solutions, but learn to treat these as hypotheses, not as fact.

Finally, we come to act on the world around us differently. We learn to listen carefully and to trust the worker over all others. We learn to walk the gemba and to lead the creation of A3s, 5S analyses, and value stream maps. But we use these tools because they fit our thinking, not be-cause we know how.



So the way to learn the how of Lean Thinking — perception, analysis, and action — is to learn the content of lean, obtain suitable coaching, and practice, practice, and practice some more. Soon you’ll begin noticing things like this: The worker in the dry cleaner is wasting energy (and time) when he puts the stapler in his pocket between each stapling. The airport security lines will challenge you. You’ll add up the minutes you spend in pointless meetings. And you get faster at seeing process problems.

Lean thinking can be acquired and used to improve the world around us. It’s not for everyone and not all of us will be rock stars. But the more of us that think — and act — lean, the happier our employees and customers will be. Our products and services will grow better and better and our businesses will grow. And we’ll figure out how to sustain our results better than we have.

-Tony Heath, May 2014


Bloom, B. S.; Engelhart, M. D.; Furst, E. J.; Hill, W. H.; Krathwohl, D. R. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. Handbook I: Cognitive domain. New York: David McKay Company.

Womack, J. P., & Jones, D. T. (2003). Lean thinking: banish waste and create wealth in your corporation. New York: Free Press.

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