October 30

What does Lean Production Involve? Know What’s in Store Before You Start

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As a practitioner of lean, i often get the question, “What does lean production involve?” I thought I’d put together this guide to show you the things that aren’t often talked about.

So, what does lean production involve? Lean involves implementing a range of process efficiency tools and techniques to reduce waste and increase the output of each process in the business. It also requires leaders to drive change, lead the implementation and empower teams to implement these gains for the long term. 

Everyone can attempt lean. The real test is to implement these tools and techniques so they get sustained. This is the hidden involvement that’s required for a successful lean production programme to work. Here’s what I mean.

3 Key Components of a Lean Programme

Including implementing lean tools, a good lean programme requires 3 key components. Each must be given a share of attention and work.

  1. Hard Lean (Implementing the tools correctly)
  2. Soft Lean (leading change)
  3. Commitment (Increased workload and required commitment)

Hard Lean

I’ve discussed this concept in previous articles, and will touch in this subject briefly. The cornerstone of lean is built around 5 key principles. They are what drives real productivity and competitive advantage.

These principles should be completed in order.

  • Understand Value – Understand what the customers want and how you can offer it
  • Understand the value stream – map the entire sequence of processes that provide this value
  • Remove the waste – By identifying the wasteful steps, you then need to eliminate them. This will make your processes flow more efficiently
  • Pull – Make to only what the customer wants and the rate of customer orders.
  • Continuously improve – Follow these steps repeatedly, to keep gaining more and more advantage.

Lean production is about improving processes, whilst providing more value to your customers. If you can do this, then you have a far greater chance of developing a competitive advantage and winning more business.

Lean production involves bringing a myriad of tools together, and combining them to achieve the 5 principles.

Hard and Soft Implementation

Ok, nothing new so far.

The hard implementation is what you see most of the time in textbooks. They’ll show you what tools and when to use.

How to create a value stream map; implementing 5S, how to measure a process. These are covered in good lean books.

They’re essential to a successful lean programme. But they’re not the be all and end all.

The problem is, most practitioners stop here. They’ve done their jobs. The ‘tools’ are deployed. Everything’s perfect.

But is everything as good as you’d expect?

The answer is an emphatic no!

Most practitioners and books alike, fail to teach the soft side of lean. This is the second ingredient that will ensure your business embraces a lean transformation and continuous improvement culture.

Soft Lean

Don’t get mistaken by this term. “Soft lean” (and it’s my terminology by the way). It’s the most important part of any lean initiative.

Soft lean consists of how you deal with people. How you lead them and how you deliver real change in your business.

You won’t read many books on leading lean change. It’s like the experts don’t know how to do it or think of it as an afterthought.

But the reality is, it’s so important. It’s why 5S is so notoriously hard to keep going. It’s the reason why that Value Stream Map get forgotten about. It’s the reason why employees don’t take the latest management initiative seriously.

The soft of lean is therefore about how leaders manage and lead the change programme. That they treat it like a change programme, NOT A SET OF LEAN TOOLS. 

Changing people’s behaviours and getting them to buy in to the lean programme means that management should spend 90% of their time leading change, and only 10% of the time implementing the tools.

This involves leading in a way that you’re probably not used to.

  • Lead by empowering others to do new things and take on tasks.
  • Delegate responsibility and be brave enough to let go a little,
  • Create ownership of processes metrics and areas
  • Develop lean management systems – to ensure the new systems are working, people understand the principles and knowing where they fit
  • Driving daily continuous improvement and challenging how things are working – and being seen to lead by example
  • Promote daily stand up meetings across the business, to identify issues and generate improvements across the business
  • Create incentives and provide feedback and rewards for employees who demonstrate the right behaviours

Typically, this is a totally different way of working for most people and requires that management have to learn fast… just as employees have to learn what they need to do and how in this new system.

Increased Investment of Time

For everyone, this means that output still has to happen. You can’t take your eyes off the lean programme as well.

In other words, everyone must make time to do the things that will change the business for the better.

This is equally true for managers. They still have to keep the plates spinning AND ensure that there’s enough time to be invested in improvement projects, like:

  • Implementing 5S across the business
  • Managing by walking about
  • Ensuring teams are sticking to the new ways of working
  • Mapping processes
  • leading improvement actions
  • Coaching employees
  • Reviewing targets and daily objectives
  • Implementing standard work
  • Ensuring problem solving processes are working and being used
  • Holding people accountable and following up the lean project

A Plant Manager at a large Aerospace company I worked for, many years ago, always referred to the demands on what a lean production system brings as; “This isn’t an option. We don’t do one or the other. We do both. We have to improve and also ensure the day-to-day work gets done.”

Perseverance Is Key

It’s hard but if you persevere as leaders, the business will see a huge step change.

Not long ago, i worked with a small company to implement lean production in their business. The MD and Operations and Sales Director both agreed that for it to succeed and for lean to transform the business within 3 months, they needed the Operations and Sales Director to work on implementing lean, full time.

The result? Pretty astounding: Although they weren’t focusing on growing sales while they were implementing lean, they managed to increase their net profit by 8% per month. This was the equivalent of getting an extra £600,000 a year in sales, without adding any extra resource at all!

Most businesses give up too early, because they fail to realise that lean production is not really just about the tools. It’s about all 3:

  • Implementing the tools
  • Leading change
  • Taking on more workload while change happens

You need to ensure you’re investing time and commitment in all three things.

Related Queries

What’s the definition of Lean production? Lean production is an approach to management, that focuses on cutting out waste and improving quality. The goal is to create exactly what the customer wants, when they want it, at the right cost, and in the right amount. This means that all processes in the business must be optimised to provide this.

Can I just use lean when I need to? Lean is a strategic initiative. You can’t just switch it on and off. You either commit to it or you don’t. If you don’t commit to it, it won’t be sustained and people will end up going back to the old way of working.

Does implementing lean cost a lot of money? In context, lean doesn’t cost a lot of investment. Even if you decide to use consultants, they normally pay their costs back 5 -10 times more. The biggest cost to a company is the investment in time to implement it and get it right. Don’t expect someone to lean things up for you. You have to do it with your teams. Otherwise no one takes ownership. If there’s no ownership, they’ll be no commitment. No commitment means no buy in to the lean production initiative.


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