Is Lean a Method or a Journey?

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Method or Journey?

I was recently told by a colleague, “Lean is not a method, it is a journey”. Presumably what was meant is that Lean is all about culture and continuous improvement, and that a workshop on specific methods was somehow off the mark. That got me thinking.


Let’s start by thinking about why Lean is, or should be, a journey, and what the journey includes. The concept of Kaizen is tied closely to the notion of continually moving forward, Continuous Improvement. The journey element of Lean therefore is the accomplishment of never-ending improvement, traveling in the direction of a “North Star” vision or goal.

North Star statements that you often hear are goals like “Zero Defects” or “One At A Time Production”. They are called North Star goals because they set the direction of the journey, but there is no expectation that you will actually arrive at the goal permanently. For example, One At A Time Production may be accomplished on a main assembly line for the product itself, but remain an elusive goal for all of the raw materials and manufactured parts required to complete it. Likewise you might achieve Zero Defects for a brief moment in time, but never having a defect is difficult to imagine.

So far so good, right? Lean as a journey sounds great…endless creativity and improvement. And Journey means Kaizen.


One of Taiichi Ohno’s better know quotes is: “Without Standards there can be no Kaizen”. And what, you might ask, do we mean by Standards? In his article “Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System”, Steven Spear describes the first rule of Standard Work:

All activities are highly specified in terms of content, sequence, timing and outcome.
To me that sounds very much like a method. You can read a longer article on this subject on The Lean Thinker website. In other words, methods (Standard Work and Lean methodologies) and journey (Kaizen) are linked. Standard Work can exist without Kaizen, but Kaizen needs something to work on, and is dependent on the existence of a method.


W. Edwards Deming, one of the founding figures in the Lean movement, always stressed the importance of linking standards with continuous improvement. Standards are not a barrier to improvement, as discussed in an interesting article by John Hunter at the Deming Institute. Here’s what Hunter has to say about standard work as a way to “lock in” improvements:

Standard work should lock in process improvements and avoid the common practice of performance degrading in organizations without process thinking cultures. Degrading performance over time is common when an improvement project is completed, if the improved process isn’t documented clearly and the new standard process is not adopted by everyone. But standard work should not prevent the vital continual improvement of processes.
Highly specified methods are subject to change, but at the present moment they are fixed and adhered to.


A final thought on just how quickly Lean methods are evolving, or becoming obsolete. I’m getting back to the original comment that triggered this post, where the implication was that learning specific methods was risky, since they are continually changing. Is it worth it to invest in training in specific methods, if they will become obsolete during the Lean “journey”?

The fact is that the foundation elements of Lean thinking are not undergoing radical change, and they have been largely unchanged over the last half-century. The concepts of flow, pull, standardization, takt and Kanban have been remarkably stable. I recently perused one of the original process improvement books in my library, Japanese Manufacturing Techniques by Richard J. Schonberger. First published in 1982, and available today, used, on Amazon for 1 cent (plus shipping). I was struck by how fresh many of the ideas still are, and how up-to-date the book still is after 34 years.

That’s not to say that there has been no Kaizen, of course. But most of the improvements have been incremental, and technology-driven. Many companies use electronic Kanban, for example, instead of paper-based signals (although Toyota Material Handling still uses paper cards), but the basic methodology is still intact. The biggest challenge that practitioners face is not the changing methods, but the issues of cultural change and sustaining, and real employee engagement.

In other words, I don’t think you need to worry that your Lean knowledge will soon go the way of the dodo bird. Au contraire mon ami, basic Lean technical knowledge will probably last the rest of your career!

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