Demystifying lean

Lean thinking: involvement of people required; fancy stationary optional
To the unfamiliar, lean with its glossary of Japanese terms can appear daunting. But in the second part of our series on lean methods, consultant Christine Stewart argues that lean is actually relatively simple – and using fancy stationery can help with understanding.

Lean thinking – that’s how best to phrase it, I think. For me lean is thinking about things differently, changing how you approach things and providing you with a mindset ready for continuous improvement.

Lean is about providing a framework that underpins a journey of improvement. At its core, it has five principles:

  1. Value: understanding who your customer/beneficiary of your service is. Then discovering what it is they value about your service, i.e. what they think they need and what they actually need from you. Armed with this you can start to manage the customer expectations and ensure that you always deliver what is actually needed.
  2. Value stream: once you understand the value, then you need to figure out how you deliver that value today i.e. understanding your current state.
  3. Flow: now you really need to make the value flow smoothly, removing obstacles in its way. Here you tackle activities that are wasteful and absorb time and effort without providing benefit.
  4. Pull: this is where you need to make sure that what is needed is ready when the customer needs it. This involves understanding the demand on your services and making sure you are meeting that demand.
  5. Pursue perfection: quite simply, this is about continuous improvement. The world around you is constantly changing and therefore how you do things needs to respond.

So that’s the framework, the journey, the philosophy or whatever you want to call it. It’s how lean people think and therefore how they approach what they do.

Not everyone appreciates that. I’ve heard lean, and myself, being accused of many things including: only being here to streamline; here to impose change; being the Blue Peter approach to improvement.


Some see lean as a threat.  I think people automatically think this means things will only be taken away. Whilst lean is trying to help you deliver more with the same resource, it can highlight that you need additional resource to deliver what is needed.

It provides data on what needs to be delivered and the resource needed to deliver it. Based on this hard evidence, decisions can be made to prioritise, stop doing things or obtain additional resource.

Imposing change

The problem is people, and the solution is people.

I would absolutely love to be able to walk into an area, review how they do things and then tell them how to improve it. Unfortunately, changes would either never be made or wouldn’t last long.

The problem is people, and the solution is people. Sustainable change can only be done by the people who do the job. You need to give them a framework to work with, that helps them change the way they think about things.

Blue Peter

This is either because I walk around with a box full of fancy stationery or because it all seems too simple.

Fancy stationery are my tools. I use this stationery to help people understand how things are working, stop things from being hidden and see a process in its entirety.

As to its simplicity, is it lean that is too simple or the output that is too simple or both? Good! Then we should be able to understand it, and if we understand it, then we should be able to do it. Making it more complex does not make it better nor does making it simple dismiss the complex nature of our processes. What lean is trying to do is make it understandable; by making it understandable we are better able to make informed changes.

The core

The five principles are the core, these stay the same no matter what you are looking at. Respect for people is the essence that ties it all together and makes it work. I said at the start that the lean framework details the journey, how you approach that journey needs to be right for you.

More about lean

  • How to create a lean team – The University of Sheffield’s Rachel McAssey explains some of the elements that make up a successful lean team.

Use lean to help you define the purpose of what you are doing, use lean to help you make your processes work towards that purpose and use lean to make sure your people are driving it all forward.

More resources on lean, including a glossary of lean terms, are available at the Lean HE hub.

Christine Stewart
Christine Stewart is a lean practitioner and a managing director at Macresco Ltd.