Lean Isn’t Just For Manufacturing

Posted on April 22, 2013 by


Lean reflects the use of standardized work/processes, capturing and deployment of best practices, and continuous incremental improvements that provide greater overall value to the customer through the elimination of waste.  The key elements of lean include elimination of waste, elimination of unnecessary work due to poorly defined or designed work flow, and achieving smooth work flow by reducing variation by standardizing processes.

Elimination of Waste (Muda)

Lean is a customer focused process in which the voice of the customer provides a sense of measure for the value of any process.  Any work done that is non-value added is considered waste.  If the activity is one that the customer would not be willing to pay extra for, the activity should be eliminated or minimized if it cannot be avoided.  Opportunities to eliminate or reduce waste can be found in processes, redundancy, movement and mistakes. Examples of waste include:

  • Moving papers around on the desk multiple times rather than placing them in a defined area or folder based on action needed (material movement)
  • Having too many paper clips in the supply cabinet but not enough ink pens (inventory)
  • Re-working the PowerPoint presentation because there was no clear understanding of what the deliverable was (over- processing)
  • Re-printing brochures because a misspelled word was found (defects)
  • Printing 200 brochures when only 100 were needed (over-production)
  • Walking around an object rather than moving it and then proceeding (motion)
  • Standing in line at the local sandwich shop as the workers try to catch up with the lunch time rush (waiting)

Elimination of Unnecessary Work (Muri)

The waste of muri, or burden, is created by unnecessary work or unrealistic expectations placed on processes or people.  Unnecessary work usually occurs when there is poor organization of work or processes.  Staff can easily become frustrated and overburdened by work that makes no sense to them or what they are working on.  Examples of muri include:

  • Failing to take into consideration potential headwinds or constraints
  • Eliminating positions but not the work being done by those positions
  • “Hurry up and wait” type activities in retail due to short-term sales incentives

Reducing or Elimination of Variation (Mura)

Any time outcomes are inconsistent or uneven for a given process, mura or variation exists.  Variation tends to create unnecessary work as well as any of the seven forms of waste identified earlier.  Widely varying work loads and work schedules can also create frustration with the staff.  Examples of mura include:

  • Rushing at the last-minute to meet targets
  • The last-minute rush to file income tax returns
  • Underutilized resources (staffing, etc)

Because lean is deeply rooted in manufacturing, it is easy to assume that its only applications are related to production and shop floor management.  To the contrary, lean principles can be applied to any organization or process.  The only limitations to the application of lean are the lack of knowledge or understanding of basic lean principles.

Dennis, P. (2005).  Andy & Me: Crisis and Transformation on the Lean Journey. New York, New York. Productivity Press.

Suzaki, Kiyoshi (1993). The New Shop Floor Management: Empowering People for Continuous Improvement.  New York, New York: The Free Press.

Ohno, T. (1988).  Toyota Production System: Beyond Large Production. Cambridge, MA: Productivity Press.