Apart from a 1-year Japanese evening class in my last year of engineering school, and a trolleybus project for Mexico with Japan-based Mitsubishi as customer, my Japanese fluency remains meagre but few words have stayed, thanks to lean management

Sorry, my Japanese is lean !


“Lean thinking” is based on a 4P model: Philosophy, Process, People & Problem solving.

Companies generally fail to implement lean management as they focus on processes & short-term benefits while forgetting the path of [lean] philosophy that favors long-term strategy.


Lean is chasing away the 3M:

  • Muda: Waste or non-value-added:
    • Excess in production, transport, processing, inventory, movement & defects;
    • Waiting time;
    • Unexploited creativity;
  • Muri: Overloading people or equipment;
  • Mura: Irregular production internally caused.


In order to eliminate wastes, use the 5S (not the phone):

  • Seiri: Sort what is needed from what is not;
  • Seiton: Give a place for everything & put everything in its place;
  • Seiso: Use cleaning as a pre-inspection;
  • Seiketsu: Maintain & control the 3S above;
  • Shitsuke: Sustain continuously.


Muri & Mura are mainly corrected through Heijunka, levelling out the schedule by volume and production mix.


Lean production is based on one-piece flow. When there is a problem, people use Andon systems to signal for help. Lean is tricky: one must act very fast to avoid stopping the whole plant and its just-in-time process. So, get to the  Gemba, the actual place where the real added-value work is done, and practice Genchi genbutsu: get your hands on the problem to solve it.

However, to prevent problems in the first place, build in quality with Jidoka, by not letting defects pass into the next station or use Poka-Yoke devices as idiot-proofing.

Be visual

The Kanban system is a pull-model originating from supermarkets. Signals are triggered to refill without disturbing production.


The Obeya is a conference room which is used as a control room or war room. It displays graphically all key aspects of management to facilitate decision-making. If your 8-year old kid doesn’t understand at first glance what’s in it, then you are wrong.

This room should not be shown to outsiders. Yet, I have stopped counted companies “proud” to show their customers or suppliers they have one … Try seppuku instead!

Value stream maps are used to focus on core processes, putting support processes at the place they should be. 

Working together

Japanese have in their culture the habit to work together and lean management is heavily influenced by it.


At a personal level and throughout the company there are Senseis acting as mentors. They respect your abilities and, therefore, will stretch you with severe goals.


At company level, Keiretsu are conglomerates of linked corporations. They use Jishuken, voluntary study groups, to shape up their management by rotating them quarterly across companies on strict project assignments.

Improving together

Lean is 80% thinking / 20% tools, not the reverse (when poorly applied), and the tools are simple. Kaizen, continuous improvement, is mainly based on Deming’s wheel (Plan-Do-Check-Act) and the 5-Why questioning.


Kaizen workshops are powerful tools to develop value stream maps. They also help members to understand their roles and demonstrate how they are stronger together.


However, even asking why five times is often misinterpreted. Looking for the root cause is not only finding the last why’s answer but of all the whys too. Your troubleshooting actions will impact on differing levels. Not only will you have to sort the issue raised but also to impact the processes & people concerned.

Let’s take an example:

Imagine you are a company manufacturing washing-machines.

Problem, level1 (P1): After routine test, you find that water has dripped on the test bed.

Answer, level1 (A1): You clean up the mess.

But why-1? Because your washing-machine is leaking (P2). A2: You fix the machine.

But why-2? Because the gasket has deteriorated (P3). A3: You replace gasket.

But why-3? Because gaskets were of inferior material (P4). A4: You change the gasket specification.

But why-4? Because such gaskets were cheap (P5). A5: You change the purchasing policies.

But why-5? Because the gasket buyer focused on short-term savings (P6). A6: You change the evaluation policy of buyers.

Most companies are at “Why-1” to “Why-3” level, sorting out the “technical” problem. Very few companies are at “Why-4” level (troubleshoot up to policies), let alone “Why-5”. 

Deciding together

To perform in a group decision, you must reflect first. To decide & drive change, you must take account of its strengths and weaknesses. In Lean this is Hansei. Reflection & self-criticism are useful enablers.

Then perform Nemawashi: consider options and make careful decision by consensus. At that point implement rapidly. Companies generally go for 20% planning / 80% execution (+ 30% for correction) while Lean goes for 80% planning / 20% execution (+0% correction). Having finely crafted the plan and gone through all options make the execution far simpler. However, it is very complex to make things simple.


For strategy execution use Hoshin Kanri, policy deployment, to go from high-level objectives defined by the top management to execution at team level.

Finally, the HouRenSou process allows senior management to be updated. Instead of having a lengthy report outdated on the day of release, you get a quick report (Houkoku) & periodical contact (Renraku) to advise or

consult (Sou dan).

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