More on Defining Lean

More on Defining Lean

Early in October (3rd), I posted a blog titled ‘What is Lean’. In it I described my struggle to locate a definition for Lean for my doctoral studies. A month or so later I posted another blog in which I described a colleague’s similar experiences. I was intrigued by a recent Linked In communication from Bob Emiliani on this subject. Bob Emiliani is an eminent Amercian academic at the forefront of lean thinking. In this communication, Bob verified my doctoral research findings, both that no definition of Lean exists and also the effect of that lack of definition (see the bits I have highlighted in yellow). Bob goes on to suggest his own definition of Lean (see the bit I have highlighted in grey). I like Bob’s definition for its precision but share some of his reservations. His definition is fully of complex phrases (such as creating value, zero-sum game, scientific method) which are in themselves ill-defined and are therefore open to wide interpretation.


 Below is an extract of what Bob Emiliani had to say on Lean definition.

‘Surprisingly, Lean management has existed without rigorous definition for decades. Some see merit in that because having no definition requires people to think for themselves. Presumably, their definition of Lean will evolve over time and become a more accurate representation of what Lean management really is.

 While that may happen in some cases, the unfortunate reality, however, is that most people do not think for themselves. Therefore, they will quickly define Lean in whatever ways they like or they will adopt definitions – often very bad ones – that they have heard from others. Leaders of organizations who do this (and most do) transfer mistaken views of Lean to followers. Then, people like me have to expend great energy to correct these widespread, mistaken views of Lean. It is an unnecessary rework loop.

 Undefined, Lean becomes anything and everything, and thus loses its meaning. Over time, this leads to widespread confusion and profound misunderstandings and misapplications of Lean management. Variation in people’s definition reduces the meaning and significance of Lean over time and has led to big problems such as the pervasiveness Fake Lean, incorrect use of tools and methods, bureaucratization of Lean in large organizations, and so on

Here is a definition of Lean management that I have used for many years: 

  • “A non-zero-sum principle-based management system focused on creating value for end-use customers and eliminating waste, unevenness, and unreasonableness using the scientific method.”


Cumbersome? Yes it is. But the definition is accurate. Importantly, I have found that this definition helps leaders to begin to think for themselves because they are unfamiliar with every component of this definition. They are unfamiliar with non-zero-sum (win-win), principles, value, end-use customers, waste, unevenness, unreasonableness, and the scientific method. In the conventional management practice that most executives know, each of these elements are missing because they are not considered important to the function of business.’

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