What Is Lean?
Lean is a business improvement approach which uses the basic question "Does this step add value for my customer?" to evaluate and improve processes. In a broader sense, Lean is also a way of thinking and a systematic approach to running enterprises and businesses. The goal of Lean is simple: improve the value and minimize the time between customer request and fulfillment by continually improving the whole process and focusing work that adds value to the customer. It is a process, a philosophy, and a way of thinking.
Lean has two pillar concepts: Just-in-time (JIT) or "flow", and "autonomation" (smart automation). Adherents of the Lean approach would say that the smooth flowing delivery of value achieves these improvements as a side-effect. If production flows perfectly then there is no inventory. If customer valued features are the only ones produced then product design is simplified and effort is only expended on features the customer values.
The other of the two pillars is the very human aspect of autonomation, whereby automation is achieved with a human touch. This aims to give the automation tools, be they software or actual manufacturing robots, enough intelligence to recognize when they are working abnormally and flag this for human attention. Thus humans do not have to monitor normal production and only have to focus on abnormal, or fault, conditions. This tends to eliminate repetitive, non-value add effort and allow people to focus on problem solving.
In software development and IT, Lean is an excellent approach for improving and accelerating the complete end to end process of delivering value to customers. This includes the processes by which the software is produced, and also the processes that define its use. The tools that define how people implement lean continuous improvement include:
- Value Stream Mapping (making the whole process visible and determining what is waste)
- Kaizen Event (Dedicated resources focused on improvement of the process)
- Mistake Proofing (Prevention not detection)
- Visual Management (Transparency and information sharing)
- Work Balancing (Leveling work across multiple steps and skills)
- Pull Systems - Kanbans and simple demand based flow (Customer demand prompts action)
- Kanbans - simple tools to manage work(Visible record or sign)
- Gemba - going to where the work is happening (Place of truth)
- 5 S (Sort, Set in Order, Shine, Standardize, Sustain)
Lean and Agile are complementary practices with a combined effect that is greater than the sum of both techniques.