Lean Frequently Asked Questions

Q:  What is the history of Lean?
Answer: “Lean” is a term first used in the book, The Machine that Changed the World (1991), describing the Toyota Production System (TPS) as “lean manufacturing.”

Q: How did lean and Six Sigma develop – is there a common denominator?
Answer: Before the term “lean” came into being to describe TPS, there was merely the suite of tools and thinking developed by Toyota as they attempted to follow the teachings of W. Edwards Deming.

Q: Who is Deming?
Answer: William Edwards Deming (October 14, 1900 – December 20, 1993) was an American statistician, professor, author, lecturer and consultant. He is best known for his work in Japan.  From 1950 onward, he taught top management how to improve design (and thus service), product quality, testing, and sales through various methods, including the application of statistical methods.

Q: Why don’t we just use what Deming taught?
Answer: Deming did not teach “lean.”  The word did not even exist.  He popularized PDCA, which became known as the Deming Cycle.  This cycle is a foundation for continuous improvement.

You can think of PDCA as the cornerstone of a home.  Without lean tools and thinking, it is difficult to continue building the home.

Note: some subscribe to PDSA, or Plan-Do-Study-Act.  Choose whichever suits your purpose as implementation of the thinking is far more important than the mental exercise of which words are correct…

Q: Is there a difference in continuous improvement and kaizen?
Answer:Use of PDCA will lead to continuous improvement and control of variation in the organization. “Kaizen” is a Japanese term that is roughly equivalent to continuous improvement

Q: Was the Deming or continuous improvement approach limited to only quality and productivity?
Answer:  No… In Deming’s earliest writings, he also wrote about how his thinking could be applied to safety.  Without today’s organizational silos (see Deming Point #9 in next Answer), we can apply Deming’s thinking to any activity including safety and environmental functions.  Organizational “silos” are departments that act in their own “silo” typically moving information up and down, rather than sharing with other functions that may be impacted by their work.

Q: Did Deming offer any further guidance?
Answer: Deming’s 14 Points from his 1982 book, “Out of the Crisis” are:


Q: How would I implement the 14 Points?
Answer: It’s not easy.  Some have done it through leadership, respect for employees, understanding variation in their workplace and engaging workers in controlling variation.  However, Deming has been criticized for putting forward a set of goals (the 14 Points) without providing any tools for managers to use to reach those goals.  His typical response to this question was, "You're the manager… you figure it out."


Q: Did Deming use statistics to understand variation and improving quality?
Answer: Deming believed that employees could be taught the basics of variation and use statistical process control to control variation.  If you’ve decided to use “lean” tools and thinking as the means and methods for driving continuous improvement in your organization, the next question might be “How do I / we get started?”

Getting Started

Q: If lean was created by Toyota, does that mean it only works in manufacturing?
Answer:  No…  “Lean” can be used in any size and kind of organization.  Government, educational institutions, assisted living centers, healthcare, HVAC companies, dentist’s offices; Chambers of Commerce are just some of the examples.  Any organization, large or small, can benefit from lean thinking and tools to improve customer service.

Q: Where do I start?
Answer:  Go back to basics and learn from Toyota….

Q: What does Toyota say?
Answer:  Fujio Cho, Retired Toyota Chairman, in a Business 2.0 magazine interview in 2004 said, “Some people think that if they just implement our techniques, they can be as successful as we are. But those that try often fail. That’s because no mere process can turn a poor performer into a star. Rather, you have to address employees’ fundamental way of thinking. At Toyota we start with two questions: “Where are we wasting resources like time, people, or material?” and “How can we be less wasteful?”

Q: What is waste?
Answer:  Toyota’s scientist, Taiichi Ohno, created the seven forms of waste to help people identify waste.  He believed that it cannot be eliminated if it cannot be identified.  The original seven forms of waste are:

Remember TIMWOOD

  • Transportation (moving products that is not actually required to perform the processing)
  • Inventory (all components, work in process and finished product not being processed)
  • Motion (people or equipment moving or walking more than is required to perform the processing)
  • Waiting (waiting for the next production step)
  • Overproduction (production ahead of demand)
  • Over Processing (resulting from poor tool or product design creating       non-value added  activity)
  • Defects (the effort involved in inspecting for and fixing defects)

Some organizations have begun to identify Underutilization of Employees as an eighth waste to Ohno’s original seven wastes.

Q:  I’ve sometimes heard of the seven forms of waste referred to as COMMWIP – is this the same as Ohno’s waste?
Answer:  COMMWIP is the same as Ohno’s seven forms of waste – just with different words and order to create an acronym that is also easy to remember.  COMMWIP stands for:

  • Correction
  • Over-production
  • Motion (people)
  • Material movement
  • Waiting
  • Inventory
  • Process


Q: Is there a simpler way to think about waste?
Answer:  Yes… Waste can be thought of as anything that doesn’t add value to the customer.  While true, this high level understanding may not be sufficient for managers or workers to identify and eliminate waste that is present in their everyday lives.  Many times, these areas can be identified when employees answer, “What problem(s) drive me crazy because they keep occurring?”  Once the problem area is identified, a determination of which one or more of the seven forms of waste is present can help to reduce or eliminate the waste.

Q: How do I learn how to identify waste?
Answer:  There are many ways.  Typically, it happens as you take the journey of using lean thinking and tools. Through use of lean tools, processes and thinking, lean practitioners learn to see waste that others do not see.

Q: Are there any other types of waste?
Answer: Yes…. The seven forms of waste could be considered as operational waste.  Injury and illness (safety) are sometimes considered major forms of waste as they impact employees and their families.  Additionally, environmental wastes such as air, water, solid, energy, carbon footprint, etc…. are all forms of waste that contribute to operational inefficiency.

Q: Is the process of learning how to implement lean different than typical learning?
Answer:  Not if you think about how you learned to play a sport, an instrument or any other skill not taught in a classroom.  Typically, you might have had a coach or mentor guiding you and helping you to improve your performance.  It is the same with lean.  It becomes a process of “acting your way to a new way of thinking.”

Q: I’ve heard the word “journey” used by others describing their implementation of lean.  Why is that?
Answer: The goal of “lean” is organizational transformation where the culture is one of relentlessly pursuing continuous improvement.   Anyone who has undertaken this “journey” knows that it requires top management commitment and leadership to create the processes and understanding that allow the entire organization to join in indentifying and eliminating waste.

Q: How do I begin the journey?
Answer:  Value Stream Mapping and 5S are two typical foundation tools to get going.

A “value stream map” lays out every step of the current state of what it takes to get a task completed.  Once the steps are visually identified, identification of waste is possible.  From there, a desired future state where waste has been eliminated / reduced is created.  Plans to tackle waste are developed and presented to management for approval.

  • Reducing or eliminating non-value adding activities is critical to have things flow well and a principle goal of Lean.  Upon examination of your processes through VSM, it soon becomes obvious where improvement opportunities lie.  This process is key to making things run faster, better and easier. 5S is a 5 step repeatable system that makes things neat, clean, organized and efficient. It provides your organization with a rapid, visible achievement while preparing your workforce for other advanced improvement efforts. What often goes unrecognized is that 5S is a powerful tool for helping people:
    • Get a “gut level” feel for waste
    • Operate as a team and reach consensus on issues
    • Learn how to standardize non-standard work (Step 4)
    • Create the foundation for continuous improvement (Step 5)