The 21st Century The Principles of the Lean Business System #5 Prevention
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Lean in the 21st Century™ Blog Series The Principles of the Lean Business System: #5 Prevention

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As you may have read in my previous blogs, Lean is rapidly evolving. It is moving past the traditional tools and one off events stage. People are also challenging whether the original concepts we learned about in the last century are really right. One of the most serious mistakes that many of us  have made is an excessive focus on the ‘pull’ and ‘flow’ parts of lean without considering the risk, quality and reliability aspects of implementation. In other words many of us focused too much on Muda and not enough on Mura. Hence, I believe an important background principle we require is one of PREVENTION, or preventing quality issues from occurring. Arguably, if we had not forgotten about quality and the teachings of early pioneers such as Deming and Juran, the Six Sigma movement would never have happened as quality, quite rightly, would have been a central tenet of lean as it is with the most successful lean organisations.

For those of you not familiar with the series and the idea of the Principles behind the Lean Business System, I will just summarise for you:

I believe it is a more holistic or systems based approach balancing traditional hard methods within multiple processes as well as a range of enabling mechanisms within the strategy deployment, leadership and engagement areas of work. In THE 8PS OF LEAN THINKINGother words the secret lies in thinking about Lean less in simple cost reduction terms and more as a way of thinking, behaving and improving, impacting on every aspect of work inside a business. I call this a Lean Business System.

So how do you go about developing this modern lean approach? Those of you that read my previous blogs will know that I believe the starting place is not copying some exemplar such as Toyota who almost certainly is in a different industry, faced with different circumstances and at a different stage of its evolution. What is needed is to start from a simple set of Lean Principles that can be applied to any industry and using this to guide your journey. Having learned from 25 years of application of lean I have defined 8 such principles: the 8Ps of the Lean Business System.

This framework helps companies in any industry, and at any stage of Lean maturity, to reflect on how they are deploying Lean in their business. It helps to take the focus away from point-kaizen activity towards a more contingent approach, a more aligned approach, a more human approach and ultimately, a more sustainable approach. Indeed it is part of a move to Lean becoming a cultural journey towards everyone in the organisation actively working towards a fully aligned ‘tomorrow better than today’ system.

One of the most serious errors I see in the use of Lean in general, is an excessive focus on tools and techniques. Not only this, but in many cases this focus is highly skewed towards a few tools. Among the ones I most frequently encounter are:

  • Big Picture Mapping (as popularised by Rother & Shook[1] under the term Value Stream Mapping)
  • 5S
  • Kanban &
  • Quick Changeovers (SMED)


These are all good tools. However, they are often applied in a slavish, A before B before C, approach. Worse still, little allowance is made to whether they are the right tools or other more appropriate tools are required.

The most serious omission is usually tools within the PREVENTION area, or those described below in the Standardised and Stable Process platform and Quality pillar. These tools are focused on preventing variation, problems and subsequent rework or quality failures for the customer.

business improvement graphic

The result is that organisations are trying to improve the flow of an unstable system. This is very unlikely to work on its own. This failure within the traditional Lean approach (as applied by many) has led more enlightened organisations to try to fill the gap by collecting a series of tools to address the problem, firms such as Motorola and General Electric. However, for many firms that have gone down the Six Sigma route they have perhaps over-focused on the quality side and under-developed the delivery pillar as shown above (as well as many of the more people related issues we covered in earlier webinars). Hence, there became an imbalance with an over focus on the Quality pillar side of the true Lean Business System.

What is required is a balance of tools from the above Tool House of Lean. This balance should be pulled by the needs for local improvement where there is a “daily habit” of continuous improvement that uses simple, visual technologies, tools and techniques that have been chosen and adapted for effective use. Hence, the specific tools to be used should be contingently selected according to specific needs.

For further information about this blog series or the accompanying webinar series please contact Dr Donna Samuel, the series manager.



[1] Mike Rother & John Shook, Learning to See, The Lean Enterprise Institute, Brookline, 1998

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