Lets Talk Lean

“If you seek tranquility, do less. Or (more accurately) do what’s essential… Which brings double satisfaction: to do less, better.” 1 If you know about lean, you might think this quote is from one of the founders of the Toyota Production System, or from some other father of the lean manufacturing philosophy. However, you may be surprised to hear that Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote that in his powerful book Meditations around 2,000 years ago. While the concepts of lean have been formalized into a coherent, modern school of thought over the last 100 years by companies like Toyota, these are not new ideas. Marcus continues: “Because most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquility. Ask yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?’ But we need to eliminate unnecessary assumptions as well. To eliminate the unnecessary actions that follow.” 1 The theme is simple; focus on what is essential, constantly assess what is necessary, eliminate those things you deem are not needed, and make what is left the best it can possibly be.

As Tim Ferriss says, I am not an expert and I do not play one on the internet. This blog is lean philosophy as I have learned it through practice over the last six years. I was introduced to lean at work; my boss had learned about lean philosophy and wanted to implement its practices at work. Traditionally, lean is taught as “lean manufacturing.” But our company is not in manufacturing. We do online retail sales: purchasing product, warehousing, online sales, and shipping directly to end-user customers. For that reason, I think that the term lean manufacturing can lead the mind down the wrong path, potentially making you think that it does not apply to you if you do not work in manufacturing. Lean’s core philosophies, terminology, and practices were formally developed in the world of manufacturing, and they make perfect sense in that arena. Manufacturing does have one thing in common with every other industry – it is a combination of many processes that act together to create an outcome. Despite its roots in manufacturing, lean is a life philosophy of creating better processes, improving processes that already exist, and identifying new areas for improvement. If you think about it, everything you do in your life is a process or a combination of multiple process. Doing your dishes, washing and folding your laundry, doing your taxes, building a quarterly business report for your boss, cooking, or making an espresso are all examples. I view anything with a clear start point, end point, and steps in between as a process. I also believe that every single process in your life can be better tomorrow than it is today. This is where lean comes in (notice how I have dropped manufacturing from the term).

If you know nothing about lean, I will cover the basics for you and get you excited to start improving the world around you. If you are a seasoned lean practitioner, do you think Lebron James has stopped practicing free throws or lay ups because he is too good? We can all continue to learn, relearn, and repeat the fundamentals. As I said before, I am not claiming to be an expert. But I have spent the past six years practicing lean every single day at work. My team and I were able to adapt lean “manufacturing” into our workplace and we do not technically manufacture anything. The fundamentals of lean are universal. I look at lean as a philosophy of life, not just a philosophy of business. I can’t attribute these lessons I am about to share with you to any one source, because I have been taking in information related to lean almost every day for the past six years. What I write is a collection of my thoughts developed by my boss, my co-workers, ideas adapted from Paul Akers book 2 Second Lean, as well as hundreds of YouTube videos, articles, and quotes that I have found over the years to provide content for our daily morning meetings. Please see my Resources page where I will continue to add source information.

I would like to start by thanking the entire lean community; all of the people who share their ideas, write articles and books, make videos, and generally help the rest of us continue to learn. The power of lean is truly about the power of the group. If you use lean to put others down and raise yourself up, it will probably work (at least in the short term) because lean practices do make everything better. In the long term you will fail because you will have missed the key component of lean: the “why” of what you are doing. To me, the “why” of lean is empowering people and providing value for the customer. Lean is meant to make the whole team better; the many, not the few. It is also customer focused first. Every improvement should eventually lead to your customers having a better experience, because the improvements you make to your processes will lead to less defects, get to the customer what they want faster, cut costs in production (which can be passed on to the customer), and reduce confusion or lack of communication.

Lean is very grassroots in nature. A truly lean culture encompasses the entire company, from CEO, to mid-level managers, to the people on the floor doing the work. Rather than leadership pushing down improvements from a boardroom desk, it is the job of the leaders to create an environment where the people on the floor doing the work are pushing improvements up from the bottom. The people who ACTUALLY do the job are the most qualified to improve that job, not the person three levels above them who may or may not even have a realistic idea of what the people on the floor are doing every day. I once gave a tour of our warehouse to an executive level member of a national shipping carrier corporation. While I was describing our lean culture to him, he says something like: “Yeah we do lean too! A few months ago the executive team went on a two week retreat and learned all about lean from a team of consultants.” I imagined a group of C suite executives flying first class, a swanky lodge in the mountains, expensive consultants teaching classes, ample breaks for golf, and 20 year old scotch served by a roaring fireplace in leather chairs. He continues, saying how much money they can save and how much labor they can avoid by practicing lean. The executives are starting to push down cost savings initiatives from the top. This is what I would classify as “corporate lean.” The top leaders of a company want to make more money and cut labor, so they attempt to make improvements from the top of the ladder, but stay mostly out of touch with the front line employees. The “why” of corporate lean is to cut costs and labor to increase returns for their shareholders.

The funny thing about corporate lean is that it has the same outcome as grassroots style lean, but the “why” is completely backwards. To flip the corporate lean scenario around, imaging investing all available time and resources into daily education of frontline workers. Leadership is on board and pushing this system to their teams, but the focus is on educating and empowering the frontline workers to improve their jobs. It will lead to employees actually enjoying their jobs more because they have ownership over their job AND have the support of their leaders to make improvements. Costs will be cut and labor will be reduced because every employee at every level of the organization is improving their processes every day. Processes would become faster, more accurate, and higher quality. The most qualified people are those who are actually doing the work each day. The entire company becomes more profitable and the customer experience improves. Employees care about their job because rather than being the cog in a machine, they get to help program how the machine works. No matter what industry you are in, your people are your most important asset. Focus on growing your people, giving them the education and expectation to continuously improve, and you will have the right recipe in place.

Toyota called the grassroots style of lean “getting in the gemba.” Gemba (or genba) is a Japanese word meaning “the actual place.” What they meant is that to make an improvement, you need to go to the actual place where a process occurs. Toyota would have high level managers go to the shop floor where they would watch and participate in processes in order to make improvements. Because they got away from their desks and went where the work was happening, problems became clear. They would talk to the employees that actually did the job and ask them what they needed from their leaders to do their jobs better. Management supported the frontline worker and gave them ownership of their own jobs, while setting the expectation that improving their jobs was the main goal.

While interviewing people to work for our company, one of the answers I have received the most when I ask why they are leaving their previous job is something like: “they don’t listen to my (or our) ideas to make improvements. I come up with a better way to do something, and I am told we have always done it this way or we can’t change that right now.” People are not robots and they do not enjoy positions in which they are just a cog in a machine with no say over how the machine works. Luckily, I can then inform them that their job with our company is not to do their job, but to make their job better. Actually doing the work is just a method to put people through processes so that they can find waste and make improvements. If a company does not allow its employees to improve their job, it is neglecting its most important resource: the people and their brains.

Any time I use the word “customer,” it means the person who is receiving the value being created by the process. This can mean someone literally paying for, trading for, or investing in the process and receiving a product, information, or service in return. It can also mean that YOU are the customer; in a process like washing and folding your laundry, you are the customer because you are receiving the value of the process in the form of clean clothes. In the process of getting in better physical shape, you are the customer because you get the benefit of being healthier and looking better.

Lean Basics

Lean is successful because it is easy to learn the fundamentals. Lean can be adapted to any process that exists. Manufacturing cars on an assembly line, getting in better shape, studying for a test, washing your dishes, doing your laundry, getting your quarterly report in to your boss, and packing for vacation are all examples of processes that can be made better. “Using Lean as only a tool will leave you disappointed. It is much more than that” 2 (Paul Akers). Lean is a tool, but it is also a powerful philosophy. A way of living where you believe you can improve everything around you, and know the steps you take in order to make that happen. Here are four steps for making any process better.

  1. Learn to see waste.
  2. Identify value added vs. non-value added actions.
  3. Create and set standards.
  4. Continuously improving your standards.

That is it. Those four steps are all you need to start, continue, or master your lean journey. Marcus Aurelius’s words ring true 2,000 years later: “If you seek tranquility, do less…. do less, better.” 1 How much more can you get done at work if you continuously ask yourself “is this necessary?” and get rid of everything that is not needed. Making improvements will create extra time; use it to improve other processes as well. You will put in motion a domino effect of improvement. Peloton cycling instructor Emma Lovewell says “It’s harder to start moving from a complete stop, than when you’re already moving. Even if you take one small step today, take it. Movement promotes more movement.” 3

Paul Akers writes: “Just ask yourself every day, ‘What bugs me?’ I guarantee you, your answers will surprise you.” 4 Ask yourself what bugs you. Ask yourself “is this necessary?” Certainly there are things that bug you. But instead of getting frustrated and hating going through the process, fix what bugs you. Make it better. Make it more enjoyable. The band Cold War Kids song Complainer states: “You say you want to change this world, Don’t sit around and complain about it.” 5 What you will find is that every little improvement you make feels good. Each one is a small win. Even if you have improved by 1%, you are victorious. “These little victories are psychologically liberating. They sound like such small things, but when you simplify a necessary daily process from a tedious back and forth effort into an easy set of options, life gets really good, really fast. No more walking back and forth, no more guessing, no more mistakes, no more rework, no more hassle.” 6 writes Paul Akers. I don’t know about you, but I would rather be doing something useful at work than slogging through the muck of a confusing process. I would rather have more time to do the things I enjoy in my free time than cleaning my house, doing my laundry, and maintaining my yard. What if you could make all of those things faster, easier, and less of a headache? If you are like me, that would give you more time in the woods with your dog, more time having a glass of wine with your wife, and more time jumping into an alpine lake. Define the value that you would like out of life. Make it happen.

Each step of process improvement will be highlighted in my following blog posts in depth. I will use manufacturing origins to begin the explanations, because that is how I learned lean. I will then expand from manufacturing into the world at large. Keep reading, exploring, and learning. As always, let’s keep the conversation going! Contact me through my site or on Twitter @culturekaizen.


1. “Mediations: A New Translation,” By Marcus Aurelius, book 4, #24, 2002 Modern Library Edition, Introduction and notes copyright 2002 by Gregory Hays, Published in the United States by Modern Library, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

2. 2 Second Lean, by Paul Akers, page 36, Copyright © 2019 by FastCap Press.

3. Emma Lovewell Quotes, September 11, 2020 by Purosotam, https://www.positivethoughtsquote.com/2020/09/emma-lovewell-quotes.html, Accessed 12/04/2020

4. 2 Second Lean, by Paul Akers, page 34, Copyright © 2019 by FastCap Press.

5. “Complainer” by Cold War Kids, Writer(s): Bonnie Leigh Mckee, Nathan Willett, Lars Stalfors, David Quon, Asa Taccone, Matthew Compton, accessed 1/01/2021, https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/coldwarkids/complainer.html

6. 2 Second Lean, by Paul Akers, page 29 , Copyright © 2019 by FastCap Press.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: