What Is Lean Thinking Anyway?

Lean thinking is a mindset, a way of viewing your business.

Lean is about focus and measuring your performance, removing waste and increasing customer service. Lean is about smooth process flows, doing only those activities that add customer value and eliminating all other activities that do not add value. Adding value means generating revenue. If the action doesn’t generate revenue, then it must add cost and not value. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? I mean, after all, this is what we do every day; or is it? Let’s see.

There are five basic steps in assessing lean operations:

  1. Determine the sequence of activities (also called value stream).
  2. Identify the activities that create value.
  3. Eliminate activities that do not add customer value.
  4. Use customer demands to control production and create inventories.
  5. You have improved the process and should always be ready to start over.

It all comes down to this: Lean thinking is all about getting rid of unnecessary steps and motions, getting rid of any piece of your work processes that do not add value to the final product or the customer. It’s about making what you need when you need it, rather than stockpiling huge inventories that cost money, take up valuable space and might not be sold.

Getting started on lean thinking can be uncomfortable because it may cause you to throw out work processes that have been in place for years.

Getting started on lean thinking can be uncomfortable because it may cause you to throw out work processes that have been in place for years. These are work practices that have given employees a real comfort level—whether they’re working or not. But thinking lean can also be liberating, because it invites everyone to carefully examine processes and think creatively about how to improve them.

Lean techniques can be constructive for distributors with $5 million+ in revenues. These companies can often fall behind because they don’t have enough trained employees to keep them ahead. Some companies have been around for a very long time, doing the same thing year after year, being successful, and then all of a sudden they are being challenged, their profits are eroding and they need to do something quickly. When they take a closer look, they will find antiquated processes and people who basically spent their entire life in the same company, doing the same thing, not knowing any different.

Companies that are seeking to improve their businesses through lean will realize they cannot achieve all of their objectives at once. If that’s your case, don’t delay starting lean; select the projects that are most important and start them. Once you get started, you will keep working on ways to get better. You’ll be following the fifth basic step in lean—improve the process.

In your pursuit of improvement, here’s a great thought to keep in mind: No matter how many times you improve an activity to make it leaner, you can always find more ways to eliminate effort, time, space and errors—more ways to eliminate waste.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association
Meet the Author
GAWDA’s Lean Operations Consultant is TAP Resources, headquartered in Orefield, Pennsylvania. You can reach Paul Matlock or Al Coulter at 888-803-3918.