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What Are the Principles and Concepts of Lean Manufacturing?

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I am a trainer and consultant in Lean Manufacturing, Six Sigma, quality management, and business management.

Learn what lean manufacturing is, its principles and its concepts.

Learn what lean manufacturing is, its principles and its concepts.

Defining Lean Manufacturing

If you want to know how to implement lean manufacturing, you may be asking yourself firstly, what is lean manufacturing, how do I define lean manufacturing and where does lean manufacturing come from? What are the principles and concepts of lean manufacturing?

To truly begin to understand lean manufacturing, you need to know how it has developed and its history. The answer depends on where you accept that it is "lean manufacturing", you could start with the first production lines of Mr. Ford producing the Model T, although you could go back further to the Early 18th century in England when Muadsley and Marc Brunel (the father of Isambard Kingdom Brunel) set up production lines to produce pulleys for the Royal Navy.

The real start of lean manufacturing, however, is with Toyota; this is where the Motion Studies of Gilbreth, the Time Studies of Taylor combined with Ford's production lines were really developed along with the quality focus of Deming, Shewhart, and Juran. What Toyota began to develop was the Toyota Production System (TPS).

Toyota, driven by a vision to be better than the west with limited available resources, developed what we now call lean; it was "brought" to the west in the 1980s as companies here began to realize that they had to rethink what they were doing to be able to compete with the Japanese.

Lean Manufacturing Principles

Lean Manufacturing Principles

Lean Principles

Lean Principles


The five lean manufacturing principles are:

  • Specify value (as seen by the customer)
  • Identify and create value streams
  • Make the value flow from raw material to customer
  • Pull production, not push
  • Strive for perfection

It is these five principles that form the backbone of any lean definition, not just the constant removal of waste; the lean manufacturing definition must be more based on the creation of a value stream flow meeting the needs of the customer to prevent the creation of waste.

These five principles were first described in the book The Machine that Changed the World which was written around the MIT study of the success of Toyota as an automotive manufacturer.

What Is Lean Manufacturing?

What is lean manufacturing? If you look through the Internet to discover a definition of lean, you will find many different suggestions, some of a few sentences, others that run to many pages. Lean is a philosophy for business success as well as a large collection of proven tools.

However, read some of these definitions; the reason I say to do so is that I am very disappointed with regard to how many of these are written. Most miss the main point of lean; they, on the whole, define lean as being a process of waste elimination. In some ways, this is correct, but it misses some of the major and most important parts of lean.

If you only focus on an internally focused drive to eliminate waste, a process generally of cost reduction and labour elimination to reduce costs and increase profits, you forget the first and most important part of lean; what is value to the customer? The selfish drive to reduce costs wrongly assumes value on the part of the customer, and the organisation tends to become not lean but anorexic! They remove the ability to be able to react to customer changes, to adapt when there are supplier and internal problems.

Because of this, companies that "have done lean" quickly revert to the way they were before the improvements, bringing back old inefficient processes to cover over other issues and rehiring the labour that they removed, lean being put on the discard pile of management fads.

Lean is the customer. First, what is value in the eyes of the customer? What features and services does the customer want? When do they want them, and what price do they want to pay? Without this information, how can you design your ideal system?

This value needs to be made to flow from raw materials through to the consumer; this value stream needs to produce a product at the pull of the customer. This is Just In Time manufacturing (JIT), producing what the customer wants when they want it!

Once you have the customer-defined value flowing at the pull of the customer, you strive for perfection, improving everything that you can about the product and process.

This is done by all within your organisation, lean values of respect for people involve everyone in the company to help meet customer value.

If you follow this process, you will not be going through a process of waste elimination and reduction but a more important process of waste prevention! So if you want to implement lean manufacturing, you must not just focus internally to impress your board and make short-term gains but focus on the customer to make sustainable changes that will help your company flourish in today's world, not just struggle to survive.

Lean tools such as 5S or 5C, seven wastes, Single Minute Exchange of Die (SMED), Value Stream Mapping etc. are all important parts of lean manufacturing, but they are not the end of the story; you need to get lean training or find a lean consultant if you want to truly learn how to implement lean manufacturing.

Lean concepts will save you money.

Lean concepts will save you money.

Lean Manufacturing Definition

My personal definition of lean manufacturing;

Satisfying your customers consistently through producing what they want, when they want it, by pulling it from the value stream using the minimum amount of resources through respecting and involving all of your employees in a continual process of improvement.

Lean is JIT, Jidoka and respect for people built on a firm foundation of 5S and TPM

Lean is JIT, Jidoka and respect for people built on a firm foundation of 5S and TPM

The House of Lean

Toyota depict their production system as a house with supporting pillars.

Lean has to be built on a solid foundation; this foundation is provided by 5S and Total Productive Maintenance which provides you with reliable and predictable processes and standardized operations. Without this stable base, you cannot build a strong company that will satisfy your customers.

The main pillars of Lean then are Jidoka (Built in Quality) and Just in Time (JIT), these are supported by the participation of all staff within the company. Every individual is respected and expected to perform as part of the team to continually improve every aspect of the business through Kiazen.

All of this is focused on satisfying the customers and making the business a success for everyone.

Agile Manufacturing vs Lean Manufacturing

Because of some people's perceived view of lean manufacturing as being "mean", there is a feeling that lean puts companies in a situation where they sacrifice flexibility and speed for extra profits. However, that is only so when lean is approached as a means for cost reduction only.

If the company focuses on the customer value and the customer needs for the company to be quick in its response to change, able to meet wild fluctuations in demand and product variety then the company will design a system that is Agile! Lean is fast, flexible, flow so it is by definition agile!

Agile manufacturing in my mind is just an attempt by some consultancies/academics to differentiate themselves from lean to escape the reputation given by poor implementations.

Lean Manufacturing vs Six Sigma

Many people are trying to decide whether to implement lean manufacturing or six sigma, why make the choice? Implement both as required!

Each has its own strengths, hence the push towards "lean sigma" in some quarters.

Six sigma's drive is one of variation reduction to drive waste reduction; it has many tools shared with lean as well as some more "advanced" statistical tools. Combined with Lean's ability to look at the "big picture" and establish standard operations the problem-solving tools of six sigma combine to make a very effective combination.

If you can't prevent the waste in the first place through the applications of lean principles then you can use the six sigma tools to reduce the waste to the point where it barely exists!

Perfection through lean manufacturing principles

Perfection through lean manufacturing principles

The Tools

Any definition of lean manufacturing would be incomplete without mentioning the various lean manufacturing tools, of which there are many;

Just in Time is one of the main foundations of lean manufacturing, the idea of making what the customer wants, where they want it, when they want it with the minimum delay and waste. JIT is aided the implementation of Heijunka, Jidoka, SMED and Kanban.

5S is one of the other important foundation blocks of lean manufacturing, 5S should be applied in all areas of your business, 5S office can make as many if not more savings for your business.

One of the main aims of the above is to eliminate the three areas of waste identified within Lean; Muda, Mura and Muri. Not just the seven wastes of lean manufacturing that many talk about when implementing lean.

To get a good overview of your operations you may wish to try creating a value stream map of your organization, using recognized value stream mapping symbols.

Any implementation of lean will require lean manufacturing training and you may wish to hire a lean manufacturing consultant.

The following are useful links for business support and lean manufacturing resources.; The Institute for Manufacturing is a significant part of the engineering department at Cambridge University in the UK. They are staffed by industry professionals rather than "academics". This is a very useful point of call for all things related to lean manufacturing.; The Chartered Quality Institute in the UK can also help with regard to lean manufacturing, quality is a significant part of any lean manufacturing implementation.; The American Society of Quality is the US equivalent and will be equally as able to help you with regard to your quest to implement Lean manufacturing.; The American National Association of Manufacturers has many resources that can help you with regard to lean manufacturing.; The UK Department for Business Innovation and Skills can help you with signposting training and even funding for lean manufacturing type training courses.; The UK Business Link is another government-sponsored service that can signpost you in the direction of lean manufacturing support and may also be able to provide funding for training or consultancy.; The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders has many resources regarding Lean Manufacturing as the drive towards lean manufacturing has very much come from within the automotive Industry.; The Automotive Industry Action Group can provide support just as the SMMT can.

These links will help you to find more information regarding what is lean manufacturing, lean manufacturing definition, lean manufacturing concepts and principles.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.


Pradeep Agarwal on April 04, 2019:


Ishihara Kasumi on March 20, 2018:

When you are talking about Lean Manufacturing, you always need to mention TOYOTA

Tony (author) from At the Gemba on August 25, 2016:

Hi John,

Not every implementation is done as it should be. Lean should be done through the employees for their benefit; not something that is implemented on them.

john on August 16, 2016:

what a waist of time and money in the public heath care system, throw out stock, take down walls and put up plastic walls, and piss off all the employees, what a great system, what a joke!

ahad on April 05, 2015:

hi lean man.......... i m ahad,i m so much interested to contact u and know a lot of new things about lean

Tony (author) from At the Gemba on December 02, 2011:

Hi Robin, linking each individual process with the succeeding / previous process can enable single piece flow which removes the need for planning and inventory and all of the associated costs and delays. Single piece flow in many industries and for some processes may at the present day be a pipe dream but if we use this aim as a foundation for improvement then eventually we may achieve it through process changes and technological improvements - after all you can now walk in to some bookstores and have a book printed and bound whilst you wait a few minutes, not have to worry about huge rolls of paper, printing presses, typesetting, and all sorts of other processes to create a huge batch of books that then has to be either sold in discount stores or recycled!

Robin on December 02, 2011:

the customer pull theory is good. but basing it solely upon one end customer is flawed. manufacturing is a series of processes(customers) each process has requirements that is dependent on the previous process. pulling from process to process sounds like the way to increase the momentum of a product for efficient timely results.

Tony (author) from At the Gemba on August 31, 2010:

Thanks for stopping by sd3rd, nice to know that there are fellow hubbers who understand lean principles. Womack is still very much in favour, in fact I read his email each week..

sd3rd on August 31, 2010:


Very nice. Good overview and reference listings.

Your presentation gives the reader as much information as s/he wants. The preliminary content you present here, and the details that are included in your references. I see references to quite a few book and other publications by no reference to Lean Thinking by James Womack. This is the principal tool I used during my MBA classes when learning Lean. Has this work fallen out of favor?

Tony (author) from At the Gemba on August 16, 2010:

Thanks for stopping by fuzzycookie, I am not "lean" in that sense, I need a diet and exercise...

Lean Manufacturing is something that I have been involved in most of my working life, hence the most obvious subject for me to write about.

FuzzyCookie on August 15, 2010:

wow I never knew what lean manufacturing was. Great Info! and I thought your profile name LeanMan meant thin or non fleshy man.. omg. .lol

Tony (author) from At the Gemba on August 10, 2010:

Toyota still use lean manufacturing and just in time (jit), after all they keep costs down and make things more efficient.

As to suppliers falling over, they had a supplier burnt to the ground many years back, but were back in action in just a day by using the expertise built up throughout their supplier network..

Thanks for your comments agvulpes.

Peter from Australia on August 10, 2010:

I have read about the Toyota plan but did I not read that they had abandoned the practice after a supplier fell over and left them in a Hole!

I like the hub and the concept of pull manufacturing!

Tony (author) from At the Gemba on July 05, 2010:

It has formed the basis of my career for over 2o years so I hope so too.. Thanks for your comments.

Akhil Anil on July 05, 2010:

Great topic, frankily im hearing about such a precious topic for the first time.I reallly hope lean manufacturing would be a great career option even.Voting Up! Thanks!!

Tony (author) from At the Gemba on June 09, 2010:

Exactly right, why produce product that there is no demand for, you spend money and use capacity making the wrong item while the customer is often asking for something else..

I will be doing more on six sigma here in the future once I have done a little more on Lean Manufacturing, so keep your eyes open.

John B Badd from Saint Louis, MO on June 09, 2010:

Good hub, I think that by using the pull method instead of push you can better mainitan the value of your product sinse you will not be flooding the market with items there is no demand for.

I have to investigate six sigma now because that is where you lost me.

Tony (author) from At the Gemba on May 17, 2010:

Please trust me.......

Glad your talking about my comments in the forums and not the content of this lean manufacturing hub!

tantrum from Tropic of Capricorn on April 07, 2010:

LOL!I would'n t trust that guy KaizenTony, not even with my doormat.

Very funny ! LOL

I know you're going to say : 'I'm Tony !' But you know what ? I don't believe you ! :)