Lean Business System

Lean Business System

In the mid 1990s I was fortunate enough to spend some months as a guest of Toyota in Japan. What I was trying to understand was why they were outperforming other car makers in the US, Europe and Japan. My previous research had also led me to believe that part of the reason for this was their effective use of the supply chain and supplier development. Later I was to help Toyota apply a similar approach to their UK supply chain.

So what did I find?

Well, as part of my research I interviewed over 50 senior Toyota staff and got a very consistent answer, “the thorough and disciplined application of the Toyota Production System (TPS)”. The more I heard this answer and the more I observed in the Toyota factories and supply chain the less I began to believe in the ‘it’s all about TPS’ answer.  So what was the ‘secret’? It appeared to me that there were 5 key areas that made Toyota work:

A rigorous focus on the purpose of the organisation that was effectively deployed to all parts of the organisation

  • A detailed understanding of the needs of the customer that drove all of their key business processes
  • An effective alignment and engagement of their people through an insightful leadership process
  • A set of standardised and widely applied tools and techniques
  • The spread of these first four areas to their wider supply chain, primarily through the Suppler Association process


These five elements I collated and termed it a Lean Business Model. What I realised was the TPS as described to me with its focus on the two pillars of heijunka and jidoka was only a part of the story, one covered within the 4th element of tools and techniques. In fact, more important it would seem, were the first three, which I could summarise as an effective focus on Purpose, Process and People. If pushed, of these probably the most important is People.

However, when I reflect on what most organisations go about implementing lean, it is still seen by many as a set of tools implemented in a series of disconnected improvement events without much attention to the business purpose, wider organisational processes nor the people involved. Surprise, surprise the result is poor engagement and sustainability!!

This is why we have started to collate our thoughts and many of you will already have taken part in discussion in our various Lean Business System LinkedIn groups. What this thinking, these groups and indeed this web site are trying to do is elevate us all above mere short term fleeting quick wins to using, adapting and rigorously deploying in a disciplined way the 5 key elements of the Lean Business Model. I don’t mean a mere copy of Toyota but an appropriate adaptation to a system of thinking, a system of work and a system of improvement that will work at all levels of our own organisation. That is what the Lean Business System approach is about.  You might find it helpful to read more about how to create a Lean Business System or the principles behind it.

Reflecting now many years later I realise that the key words the Toyota staff were saying were not ‘Toyota Production System’ but ‘thorough and disciplined’. However, at the time neither they nor I knew this. Toyota themselves have now recognised this fact and have now rebranded TPS as a Thinking People System.

Peter, Professor Peter Hines

Chairman, S A Partners