Understanding the basis of Lean Thinking can be the stepping stone for the culture of continuous improvement and respect in your organization

First things first – let’s start by learning the basic terminology.  The Lean concept refers to management philosophy of Toyota Production System that has been identified as “lean” only in the 1990s. The term originated from the John Krafcik’s 1988 article “Triumph of the Lean Production System”, based on his master’s thesis at the MIT Sloan School of Management. This study led to the global best-seller “The Machine That Changed the World” by Womack and Jones published in 1990, that acknowledged the worldwide term usage.

However, when it comes to defining the term, we encounter a myriad of definitions, but our advice is to start with a brief yet insightful “Lean Primer” by Craig Larman and Bas Vodde (available for free download).

Inside the “Lean-Thinking House”

Before we enter the lean temple, let’s identify some of the most common misconceptions about Lean.

Even though often defined as a “waste reduction methodology or tool”, the meaning of Lean should not be reduced to a mere tool. The very essence of Lean is a concept of “building people, then building products“, as explained in “Toyota’s Way”:

“…the power behind the Toyota Production System is a company’s management commitment to continuously invest in its people and promote a culture of continuous improvement.”


The pillars of Lean are not waste reduction and management tools, but continuous improvement and respect for people. To understand their importance we need to take a look at the “lean thinking house” in its entirety.




Lean Goal: Sustainably Deliver Value Fast

Sustainable shortest lead time, best quality and value (to people and society), most customer delight, lowest cost, high morale, safety

How does Toyota achieve this goal in their two main processes, product development and production? In the development section, by out-learn the competition, through generating more useful knowledge and using and remembering it effectively, and when it comes to production—by out-improve the competition, by a focus on short cycles, small batches and queues, stopping to find and fix the root cause of problems and removing all waste

Lean Foundation: Lean Thinking Manager-Teachers

Management applies and teaches lean thinking, and bases decisions on this long-term philosophy. 

In Toyota from the day one employees begin the learning process, based on these steps:

  • learn problem solving through hands-on improvement experiments
  • learn to see how lean thinking applies in different domains
  • learn kaizen mindset (continuous improvement)
  • appreciate a core principle in Toyota called Go See and gemba

The goal is to create the culture of mentoring, ensuring that every person thinks for themselves, with the help of their managers – thinking skills teachers.

Pillar One: Respect For People

Respect for and sensitivity to morale, not making people do wasteful work, real teamwork, mentoring to develop skillful people, humanizing the work and environment, safe and clean environment (inside and outside of Toyota), and philosophical integrity among the management team.

Pillar Two: Continuous Improvement

Continuous improvement is based on several ideas:

  • Go See
  • kaizen
  • perfection challenge
  • work toward flow (covered in the 14 Principles)

Each of the pillars deserves a special attention, and the Lean Primer analyzes them thoroughly so be sure to explore it carefully.

After this brief introductions it becomes more natural to comprehend the lean mindset a company needs to embrace in order to allow their teams to passionately focus on creating products that delight the customers. This way of thinking can be easily translated into a way of working and a strategy, as summed up in Cardiff Univerity’s 5 principles of Lean Thinking, that we bring you in our latest infographic below.






If you want to continue studying the Lean Thinking here are some useful resources:

Lean Primer by Craig Larman and Bas Vodde

The Lean Mindset www.poppendieck.com

Leadership Behaviors: The Path To Lean Culture