Lean Thinking

a pioneer of an agile mindset

Lean Thinking describes a personal attitude based on the values of the Lean philosophy. Lean principles help you to increase the value for customers, to avoid waste and to sensibly synchronize all business activities.

In this article, I will introduce you to the most important Lean principles that will help you practice Lean Thinking in everyday life. Because lean thinking is not only a prerequisite for successful lean management, but above all an important building block for successful digitization.

Where does lean thinking come from?

The term “Lean” was born in the late 1980's with the article The Triumph of the Lean Production System, where the researchers at MIT outlined the reasons for the continued success of Japanese automakers in the 1970s and 1980s. From the initial considerations on Lean Production, a general set of rules for Lean Management, the holistic alignment of a company according to the Lean philosophy, became in the following years.

In the course of many studies, however, it became clear above all that the success of the Lean philosophy is very closely linked to the personal attitude and attitude of Japanese employees. The way employees think and how they direct their daily actions is deeply rooted in the Japanese work and life culture. These behavioral norms and principles are at the core of Lean Thinking.

Lean Thinking and Digitization

Lean Thinking is an important forerunner of our current understanding of agility. There is already a holistic focus on the needs of the customer in the Lean philosophy, which we summarize today under the term Customer Centricity. In addition, Lean Thinking is a very systemic view that aims to optimally synchronize all processes and value creation of a company. And that closes the circle to digitize your company. Because with consistent networking and automation, you are able to consistently implement the vision of a "lean organization".

The most important lean principles for your everyday life

Using the guiding principles of Lean Management, the following Lean principles are a good basis for a personal attitude and a good basis for practicing Lean Thinking consistently.

  1. Kaizen - The pursuit of perfection
  2. Hansei - self-reflection
  3. Genchi Genbutsu - "Go and see yourself"
  4. Mieruka - "Show don't tell"
  5. Yokotenkai - Let Information Flow
  6. Shoujinka - follow the work
  7. ShuHaRi - Learn from Experts
  8. Kaidai Suikou - "Getting shit done"
  9. Poka-Yoke - Avoid unnecessary mistakes
  10. Kata - first think, then solve
  11. Ningensoncho, Hitozukuri - respect for people

Kaizen - The pursuit of perfection

Kaizen stands for continuous improvement and the pursuit of perfection. Kaizen is practiced in different ways. Starting with small and quick improvements (so-called "Kaizen Blitz") for problems that are easy to solve up to larger innovations (Kakushin, Japanese for reform, innovation). The desire to do better is not seen as a devaluation of the existing, but as an attitude that it may already be good today, but can and should always get better. Kaizen is an essential cornerstone of Lean Thinking. You can find the Lean Principle Kaizen in agile frameworks in the form of retrospectives.

Hansei - Self-reflection

Self-knowledge is the first step towards improvement.

The Hansei Lean principle stands for reflection or self-reflection. This means that you are able to acknowledge your own wrongdoing and, based on this insight, offer the prospect of improvement. For your colleagues and superiors, however, this also means that they expect "Hansei" from you. It is not about justification, nor should employees be exposed. Instead, it is about assuming responsibility and the willingness to learn from mistakes. The Hansei Lean principle is therefore also an essential prerequisite for Kaizen and the pursuit of perfection. Because only those who believe that mistakes are part of learning can successfully practice Lean Thinking.

Genchi Genbutsu - "Go and see yourself"

Hearing a hundred times is less good than seeing once. Seeing a hundred times is less good than doing it once. Taiichi Ohno

The Lean principle Genchi Genbutsu or Gemba means something like "going to the place where it all happens". That means, instead of relying on listen-and-say, you look at situations on the ground in order to then make the right decisions. Of course, Gemba is not an invitation to micromanage. Rather, the request to managers to form their own opinion on site instead of making decisions remotely. Alternatively, you can have the decision made directly by employees who may already understand the problem best. That would be an attitude that would correspond entirely to lean thinking but above all to an agile mindset.

Mieruka - "Show don't tell"

The Lean principle Mieruka means something like "visualization" or "visual control management". This means visual representations or drawings to make otherwise complex or difficult facts "understandable". Because our brain can process information better if visual channels are also addressed. Mieruka can be practiced, for example, by making work visible in Kanban Boards. Working with Post-Its, with posters (e.g. Business Model Canvas, Value Proposition Canvas) are expressions of the Lean Mieruka principle. In this LinkedIn post you will find many more great examples for the application of Mieruka.

Yokotenkai - Let information flow

If the Yokotenkai Lean principle were practiced by all employees, the challenges in the context of digitization would be many times lower. Because Yokotenkai is made up of the words "Yoko" (width) and "Tenkai" (development, expansion) and stands for the spread of knowledge in an organization. This means that information flows across department, division and hierarchy levels. Instead, information is used as currency in many places. So if you should make the decision to commit yourself to lean thinking, then from tomorrow you will have to document and circulate information.

Shoujinka - Follow the work

The Shoujinka Lean Principle stands for "fewer people" or a high degree of flexibility in the workforce. For lean management this means that production peaks or failures can be absorbed by redistributing employees. Of course, this requires a corresponding lean thinking on your part, combined with the willingness to use your skills in different roles in the interests of the company. And that you are also ready to keep developing new skills and competencies. If you have internalized this Lean principle, then you will not wait until your competence is needed, but will follow Lean Thinking with open eyes through your company and ask yourself where you can make a meaningful contribution. In terms of Shoujinka, there are no departmental boundaries or hierarchical levels.

ShuHaRi - Learn from the expert

Speaking of learning. The Shuhari Lean Principle is based on the words Shu, Ha, Ri and describes a three-stage learning process. In the first step you learn "shu" through simple imitation and repetitions. In the second step "ha" you start variations of the rehearsed process. Finally, in the third stage "ri", you develop the process further with your own observations. What is crucial about this perspective of Lean Thinking is a humble attitude not to know better. But to look for experts, to imitate them and only after a little routine to start building in your own variations. But especially when it comes to the introduction of agile methods, many executives miss ShuHaRi. You are guaranteed to know better after half an hour of googling and then practice your own modifications of the methods. This behavior can be observed particularly well when using OKR. And then you can watch "Kaiaku". Despite the best of intentions, it turns for the worse.

Kaidai Suikou - "Getting shit done"

The Lean Principle Kaidai Suikou means "fulfillment" or "execution". This means the ability to complete tasks that have already been started and to carry them through to the end. However, in many project cultures you can see that there are many "sleepers" or projects that disappear somewhere in the drawer after a not so successful course. If those in charge had enough "Hansei" they might also be able to practice "Kaidai Suikou". In this way they could at least bring a terrible end to an inglorious project. In a figurative sense, you will find this lean principle in the form of reviews at the end of a Scrum cycle. Here the teams present what they have achieved in the past cycle.

Poka-Yoke - Avoid unnecessary mistakes

Poka-Yoke is an invitation to all IT and digital experts. Because the Lean principle translates as "avoiding unfortunate mistakes". As already attested by Murphy's law, everything goes wrong that can go wrong. In order to largely rule out this type of unnecessary human error, you either pursue the philosophy of establishing additional process steps or using technology to avoid these errors entirely. An analogous process step and example of Poka-Yoke is depressing the brake when starting an automatic vehicle. In the course of digitization, e.g. Business process automation a strategy to avoid unnecessary mistakes. Some forms of intelligent automation are also called jidoka as part of quality control in Lean Thinking.

Kata - Think first, then solve

The Lean Principle Kata literally means "the right order of doing things" or simply "routine". Originally, kata is a rehearsed movement pattern in martial arts. As a cornerstone in Lean Thinking, Kata means that every measure follows a 4-stage choreography:

  1. Understand the long-term goal
  2. Grasp the actual situation
  3. Determination of the next target state
  4. Iterative approach to short and long term goals

This means that problems should first be carefully analyzed and understood before you implement hasty solutions. This means that solutions are only sketched and developed iteratively in a PDCA cycle (plan, do, check, adjust) based on a profound understanding of the problem. If you have already worked with Design Thinking or in a Scrum Team the Lean principle "Kata" will look very familiar to you.

Ningensoncho, Hitozukuri - respect for people

Seen a little superficially, the Lean philosophy may seem very technocratic. However, a respectful and appreciative approach is not only deeply anchored in Japanese culture, but is also embodied by several lean principles. The first Lean principle, Ningensoncho, means "respect for humanity". That means you value other people's opinions and treat them well. This not only affects colleagues and employees, but also customers, suppliers and partners. Another cornerstone of the humanity of the Lean philosophy is the Lean principle Hitozukuri, which means something like "people make". The approach not only takes into account technical training, but also lifelong learning and coaching people as part of an excellent workplace. This lean principle is e.g. in the form of Jinzai Katsuyou an important part of the Toyota management training. Managers have the goal of making the best of their employees and developing them.