While oversimplification of lean will not serve you well, when people ask for the shortest possible definition of lean, the answer given is, “standardized thinking.” This means that all employees in your company have a shared way of thinking that serves them regardless of the problems that they face. This in turn means that if a problem or opportunity surfaces that is not addressed by the traditional tools of lean, the shared way of thinking can address the problem directly and put in place powerful solutions. This is how most of the traditional lean tools probably surfaced in the first place. Lean and TPS7 are not tools that were put in place; instead, those tools were responses to the problems and opportunities found. Those responses were so powerful because they were well understood by people using shared thinking and because the shared thinking allowed those solutions to work in concert with previous solutions as well as the solutions and tools to come. Operational and manufacturing companies that have found significant success through or because of their manufacturing assets can be found to have good strategic decision making. Most studies of strategy, and particularly manufacturing or operations strategy, find that more important than the particular individual decisions being made is whether or not those decisions are being made with consistency.8 There are two ways to create this consistency. One method is to have every important decision made by one person. This is very common and can be effective in smaller organizations during times of crisis but can cripple a company in the long-term. The second method is to have all the employees use a shared way of thinking and then make decisions at the point closest to the information needed. This shared thinking will create consistency throughout the organization, making the manufacturing or operations of the company more strategic and able to contribute more to the overall success of the company.9 Very few companies get to this level.
While the first level of defining lean a system is a shared way of thinking, the second level is defining what that thinking is. The strategic goal is to produce exactly what the customer wants when they want it at the price they want with zero waste and everyone safe. The question then is what shared thinking, defined by rules and principles, is most effective at meeting that strategic goal.