Does Lean apply only to manufacturing or is it applicable to other parts of our business? This is question that is being asked with greater frequency… a question that you may be asking yourself. The short answer is no, in fact Lean applies to all areas of business. Why then does the perception exist that Lean only applies to the shop floor? A more detailed answer I believe, can be uncovered if we take a look at some of the history behind the term “Lean” as well as traditional continuous improvement activities.
Upon some reflection, I have come up with two theories. The first theory is this perception may be a result of terminology that the Lean community uses. Phrases like Lean Manufacturing, Lean Production and certainly the roots of what we call Lean today, the Toyota Production System, includes the words “manufacturing” and “production”. So the question begs asking, have we (as Lean Practitioners) perpetuated the stereotype by simply using these industry terms?
To test this theory, I decided to run a search on Amazon.com. Although not scientific, I wanted to see if there was some evidence to support this theory. I conducted the search in the book section of the website under Business and Investing. The results were actually quite staggering. I first searched the word Lean that returned 157 hits. I then searched the term Lean Manufacturing that resulted in 43 549 hits! Wow, a 1:277 ratio! What does this information really tell us? Well simply that there is far more written about Lean Manufacturing than just Lean. While this is by no means conclusive, it certainly does support the theory and could possibly contribute to the perception that Lean does in fact apply only to manufacturing. After all, the authors that create the material we read associate “Lean” with “manufacturing”, so why shouldn’t we all?
The second theory in how we perceive the application of Lean lies in the way manufacturing firms have traditionally engaged in continuous improvement activities. Those who have spent any part of their career in manufacturing certainly can relate to the statement, “When we seek to improve we seek the shop floor.”
Not that the shop floor isn’t a viable option for improvement initiatives, it is, and should be a consideration of any well thought out plan. But for those of us that have had exposure to Value Stream Mapping, we know that the shop floor accounts for only a portion of the total value stream lead-time, and usually a small portion.