October 31

What are the Lean Principles for Lasting Change?


There are a number of ideals and principles to lean but what are the lean principles that will help you create change that lasts? This guide will give you an alternative view on how to build a lean system in your business.

What are the lean principles? Lean is built around enhancing value and stripping waste out of processes. As part of this, the following tools are needed to create a lean system that lasts:

  • Standard work 
  • Daily problem solving
  • 5S and visual management
  • Just in time 
  • Don’t pass defects on
  • Respect for people  and lean management system

These lean principles form an important part of any lean system. Implemented together, will provide a solid platform for a lean system that lasts and creates competitive advantage.

The House of Lean

The principles of a good lean system can be shown in the form of a house. Just like a house is built from strong foundations, our lean house must be too. This is in the form of robust standard ways of working, good visual management and stopping to fix problems for good.

We then have the supporting pillars for the roof. When we have robust foundations, we create the strong pillars that create the house’ shell. In lean its built on just in time and making and receiving only what we need, when we need it.

The second pillar focuses on making things right first time, and putting in systems where defects are not passed on.

In the middle of our house is the thing that binds it all together. It’s how we manage our people. and the management system we use to lead a lean business.

Combined, these principles create improved customer satisfaction, better delivery, faster lead times, reduced cost and increased morale (The roof).

What are the lean principles to sustain change? the house of lean

5S & Visual Management

5S and visual management helps transform the business from a hidden workplace to a visual one. It means that everyone can see within 30 seconds, the following:

  • How key processes are performing to plan
  • Where the issues are
  • Who’s working on improvements and these issues
  • Where things are stored and how much should be stored
  • How processes and systems should work

All items have a clearly define place, without question. There’s structure and standards on how the work environment operates.

With an organised and controlled work environment, you can expect quick wins, and remove some wasteful activities.

And with this in place, people become accustomed to standards and systems thinking, which makes it easier to implement other lean standards, going forward.


Daily Problem Solving

This is obvious. Businesses must solve problems. But stop and ask yourself; how many problems actually get solved so they don’t come back?

If you’re being honest, probably not many.

The next foundational step in the lean principles is daily problem solving. This involves getting everyone in the organisation  to improve what they have an influence and impact on.

Daily problem solving is built around the PDCA model, and requires teams to fix process issues for good.

Let’s be honest, most businesses create great workarounds. They find a problem and then they work out ways to get around the problem, so the product or service gets to the customer on time.

This is more of a fire-fighting approach. We ‘wait’ for a problem and then throw what we have at it to then try and get through it.

And the more problems, the less time and resource we have, which can then end up in a feeling of chaos.

Lean requires you to create the work around, BUT then stop and fix the problem for good. It means that you’ll need to use some root cause analysis tools and spend time to fix the process, so it doesn’t happen again.

Daily problem solving means that this method must be taught throughout the business. Everyone follows the same approach, and everyone is encouraged to highlight problems and fix them.

There’s a reason why Toyota, who created this system, expect their employees to make daily improvements as a standard, as well as making cars.

It’s one of the foundational elements to being a world class business.

Standardised Work

The last of the foundational principles is standard work. Standard work ensures that processes and systems are conducted in an agreed way.

This version of working ensures that it’s currently t he best and most efficient way of working.

Standard work is accompanied by visual management, meaning that the right way to process a set of tasks is documented and obvious to see.

Standard work can help in many different ways:

  • how to keep an area tidy and organised
  • How to process kanban
  • What to do when running a stand up meeting
  • how to process an order
  • How to assemble a product correctly

Standard work reduces the chance of variation in output. If you think about it; if we both follow exactly the same approach, we can get consistent output in how long the activity takes and the quality of our work.

Just in Time

Let’s suppose the foundations are in place. The effect you’d expect would be a well drilled, well organised business. You’ll see:

  • Consistent quality
  • Improved efficiency and productivity
  • Happier work environment
  • And potentially happier customers, too

Your work is not done, though.

You’ve merely created the foundations of a successful business.

The next step is to build the pillars to a lasting continuously improving business, driven by efficiency.

Just in time – the first pillar, involves not ordering and processing items too soon. You’ve got to get the right balance to making and receiving work just enough, so as to not run out of work, but not too much that swamps the processes and resource.

In just in time, the little and often approach works best with pretty much all processes. It can be a challenge to make it work in your organisation, but it’s doable. A lot of thought and creativity must be applied.

You may need to produce a job that takes 40 hours to manufacture, but you can’t do it all right now, so why flood vital space with work that will sit there for much of the week?

You may need stock, but why have 6 months in your warehouse? This takes up space, time, stock taking, cash, and is what lean tries to reduce, too.

Here are some additional examples of Just in Time:

  • Make to what the customer wants
  • Have holding stock that is a small as possible
  • Process orders as they arrive, not batching them in the office
  • Split jobs down into smaller pieces of work, controlled by time (E.G. supply work to manufacturing at 2 hourly increments)

Just in time ensures that you’re not spending too much time on the wrong resource, and that your vital resources aren’t tied down doing things that’s not directly required right now.

By getting it right, businesses can often see a step change effect in cash saving and productivity.


Don’t Pass Defects On

This pillar is self explanatory, but as the others, it’s a vital ingredient in the principles of lean.

We should avoid passing defects on at all costs. By defects, i mean anything that causes a turn-back.

A turn-back is when someone has to go back to a previous process (And often someone else) to ask a question, or get something fixed or changed.

Every time we have to turn back to a previous step, we’re causing inefficiencies. We are not making right first time and have to do something again.

They can be very sutble things like, seeking clarification on something; or missing a data entry field on a quote. No matter how small they appear, they all add up and can cripple your processes.

Defects can be in any process. They’re not just restrictive to manufacturing product failures. Here are some examples:

  • sending the wrong drawings to engineering
  • putting the wrong details in a quote
  • delivering the wrong products to the customer
  • not providing the right information to the next step in the process
  • Too many reviews and sign offs in a process
  • Missing important bits of information
  • Providing the wrong specification

And so on. If you look in your business, you should see hundreds of these examples. In some businesses, they’re happening every day, too.

Not passing defects on involves creating processes that can’t make errors. But if you can’t get to this utopia, looking at ways of give the next step in the process exactly what they need in the way they need it. This means redesigning processes to be able to pass information and product on, without anyone asking, questioning or correcting.

Leading Change

Respect for people and implementing a lean management system are the mortar that holds all the other lean principles together.  Without the right leadership system, and without any focus on leading change, your efforts will fall down. In this analogy, your lean house will collapse.


Respect for people

This involves giving people a chance to identify improvement ideas and take action. It’s about delegating responsibility and actions, whilst seeing people as important assets.

It’s easy to forget that outside work, we all have our own lives. Some people have skills that you’d never think of. These skills and experiences can be used in the workplace to help broaden their responsibility and help implement the lean principles.

For instance…

  • A captain of a football team may well be a good team leader or possesses the leadership skills to lead a small scale change project.
  • A supervisor has experience leading change in  previous company, and would be a good asset to run 5S,
  • Or a guy who’s hobby is building miniature railways could provide an eye for detail needed to map a key process.

Creating respect for people, ensures that no idea is a bad idea and that people are used to drive change.


Lean Management

In tandem with this, a lean management system is needed to create lasting change.

Lean management involves:

  • Knowing how to lead
  • What to say
  • How to coach people to grow them
  • What critical things each leader does to ensure the systems (above) are being maintained.

A part of this system is the concept of leader standard work. This is a simple list of actions that must be completed daily to ensure the lean system is being managed.

The Output

By moulding these elements together, you can achieve competitive advantage.

Your business will be agile and responsive. It will react faster to changing trends. You’ll produce more with less resource. Your customers will be delighted with the way your business services them and will come back for more.

And through this competitive advantage, you’ll see an increase in market share. Your employeeswill be more engaged and happier. They’ll take on more responsibility and continuously strive to grow the business together.

These benefits form the roof of our lean house. They’re the output to the hard work that’s already been done.


Related Questions

Is it easy to implement these lean principles? It can be pretty simple to do it. But the true answer lies in how complex your business is. A  make to order job shop business will take a little more head scratching than a simple injection moulding and assembly one. They can all be transformed though. It takes a lot of resource to implement these principles, because it’s a concerted effort. Everyone should play their part.

Also, managers must lead the change effort and do it by example. As i’ve written in a previous article, you have to expect your workload as a manger to increase. This is for the short term. You must lead the lean change project and run the day to day aspects of your day job, too.

This effort will drop off as lean starts to stick and your results come through, but first of all, it can be a big effort to get it going.


What’s the first thing to focus on when implementing the lean principles? Build that foundation, first. Look to ensure the place is organised and visual. Create metrics and make them easy to see and record.

Map your key processes and then try to optimise and standardise them to get a consistent output, and improve connecting processes.

Ask the internal customer to each process step, “how exactly do you want to receive this information?” Then design the processes to provide them with exactly what they want, how and when.

When you have built the foundations, move onto the pillars and the lean management system.


You may also like

How to Begin Your Lean Journey: 5 Steps to Making an Impact

5 Reasons Why Continuous Improvement in Manufacturing Is Important

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