Harnessing Lean Thinking

Lean thinking focuses on enhancing value for the customer by improving and smoothing the process flow and eliminating waste. Since Henry Ford’s first production line, lean thinking has involved through several sources over many years, but much of the development has been led by Toyota through the Toyota Production System (TPS)

Lean Thinking Is Everywhere

Toyota built on Ford’s production ideas, moving from high volume, low variety, to high variety, low volume.


Although lean thinking is usually seen as being a manufacturing concept and application, many of the tools and techniques were originally developed in service organisations. These include, for example, spaghetti diagrams, part of the organization and methods toolkit, and the visual system used by supermarkets to replenish shelves.

Lean Supermarkets?

Supermarkets were using Just In Time (JIT) and Kanban, enabling customers to ‘buy what they need at any time’, and avoided the store holding excess stock.


Kanban is simply a card providing the signal to order more stock.

The Birth Of The Lean Enterprise

The performance attributes of the Toyota System were:

  • Needing less human effort to design products and services
  • Requiring less investment for a given amount of production capacity
  • Creating products with fewer delivered defects
  • Using fewer suppliers
  • Going from concept to launch, order to delivery and problem to repair in less time and with less human effort
  • Needing less inventory at every process step
  • Causing fewer employee injuries

The Basics of Lean

Toyota’s Taiichi Ohno describes the TSP approach as:

“All we are doing is looking at a timeline from the moment the customer gives us an order to the point when we collect the cash. And we are reducing that time line by removing the non-value added wastes."

The TPS approach is about understanding how the work gets done, finding ways of doing it better, smoother, and faster, and closing the time gap between the start and end points of our processes. And it applies to any process.


Whether you are working in the public or private sector, in service, transactional or manufacturing processes really does not matter.

People are at the heart of TPS

The system focuses on training to develop exceptional people and teams that follow the company’s philosophy to gain exceptional results.

Consider the following:

  • Toyota creates a strong and stable culture where values and beliefs are widely shared and lived out over many years
  • Toyota works constantly to reinforce that culture
  • Toyota involves cross-functional teams to solve problems
  • Toyota keeps teaching individuals how to work together

Being lean means involving people in the process, equipping them to be able, and feel able, to challenge and improve their processes and the way they work. Never waste the creative potential of people!

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Harnessing Heijunka Levelling

Lean thinking involves a certain amount of jargon – some of it Japanese.

Heijunka provides the foundation. It encompasses the idea of smoothing processing and production by considering levelling, sequencing, and standardizing.


Leveling involves moving to value of production to reduce variation, that is, the ups and downs and peaks and troughs that can make planning difficult.

Amongst other things, levelling seeks to prevent ‘end of period’ peaks, where production is initially slow at the beginning of the month, but then quickens in the last days of the sale or accounting periods for example.

Harnessing Heijunka Sequencing

Sequencing may well involve mixing the types of work processed.

For example, when setting up new learners in a bank, the type of loan are being processed is mixed to better match customer demand, and help ensure applications are actioned in date order.

So often, people are driven by internal efficiency products, whereby they process the ‘simple tasks’ first to get them out of the way and ‘hit their numbers’, leaving the more difficult places to be processed later on.

This means tasks’ are not processed in date order, and people are reluctant to get down and tackle a whole lot of difficult cases at the end of the week, making things even worse for the customer and the business.

Harnessing Heijunka Standardizing

Standardizing is the third strand of Heijunka. It seeks to reduce variation in the way the work is carried out, highlighting the importance of standard work, or following a standard process and procedure.

It links well to the concept of process management, where the process owner continuously seeks to find and consistently deploy best practice. However, you need to standardize your processes before you can improve them.

Once they are standardized, you can work on stabilizing them, and now that you fully understand how the processes works, you can improve them, creating a ‘one best way’ of doing them.

The Power of Jidoka

In the spirit of continuous improvement of course, the ‘one best way’ of carrying out the process will keep changing as the people in the process identify better ways of doing the work.


Jidoka concerns prevention and links closely with techniques such as failure mode affects analysis (FMEA). Jidoka has two main elements, and both seek to prevent were continuing when something goes wrong:

Autonomation Includes Humans

Autonomation allows machines to operate autonomously, by shutting down if something goes wrong. This concept is also known as Automation with human intelligence.


This concept stops defects being passed on to the next process. A simple example is an office printer stopping printing when the ink runs out.


Stop at every abnormality is the second element of Jidoka. An employee can stop an automated or manual line if they spot an error.

Forcing everything to stop and immediately focus on the problem, seems painful at first, but doing so, is an effective way to quickly get to the root cause of problems.

Just In Time (JIT)

Just in time (JIT) provides the of a pillar of the TPS house. It involves providing the customer with what’s needed, at the right time, in the right location and in the right quantity.


The concept applies to both internal and external customers.


JIT comprises three main elements:

The Single Piece Flow Secret

Single piece flow means that each person performs an operation and makes a quick quality checked before moving their output to the next person in the following process.


This concept also applies to automated operations where inline checks can be carried out.

If a defect is detected, Jidoka is enacted: the process is job, and immediate action is taken to correct the situation, taking countermeasures to prevent reoccurrence. This concept is a real change of thinking that moves us away from processing in batches.

The Perils of Batch Processing

Traditionally, large batches of individual units are processed at each step and a passed along the process only after an entire batch has been completed.

The delays are increased when the batches travel around the organization, both in terms of the transport time, and the time they sit waiting in the internal mail system.

At any given time, most of the units in a batch of sitting idle, waiting to be processed.


In manufacturing, this is seen as costly excess inventory. In addition, errors/defects can neither be picked up nor addressed quickly – if they do occur, they often do so in volume.

This of course also delays identifying the root cause.

Single Piece Flow and Pull Production

With a single piece flow, we can get to the root cause analysis faster, which helps prevent a common error recurring throughout the process.


Pull production is the second element of JIT.


Each process takes what it needs from the preceding process only when it needs it and in the exact quantity. The customer pulls the supply and helps avoid being swamped by items that are not needed at a particular time.

Pull production reduces the need for potentially costly storage space.


Many times, overproduction in one process, perhaps to meet local efficiency targets, results in problems downstream. This increases work in progress and creates bottlenecks.

Takt Time

Takt Time is the third element of JIT, providing an important additional measure. It tells you how quickly to action things, given the volume of customer demand.

Takt is a German for a precise interval of time, such as a musical meter. It serves as the rhythm or beat of the process – the frequency at which a product or service must be completed to meet customer needs.