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Defining Lean Production: Some conceptual and practical issues

Jostein Pettersen Division of Quality Technology and Management & Helix VINN Excellence Centre Linköping University, Sweden

Purpose – This paper aims to investigate the definition of Lean Production and the methods and goals associated with the concept as well as how it differs from other popular management concepts. Methodology/Approach – The paper is based on a review of the contemporary literature on Lean Production, both journal articles and books. Findings – It is shown in the paper that there is no consensus on a definition of Lean Production between the examined authors. The authors also seem to have different opinions on which characteristics that should be associated with the concept. Overall it can be concluded that Lean Production is not clearly defined in the reviewed literature. This divergence can cause some confusion on a theoretical level, but is probably more problematic on a practical level when organizations aim to implement the concept. This paper argues that it is important for an organization to acknowledge the different variations, and to raise the awareness of the input in the implementation process. It is further argued that the organization should not accept any random variant of Lean, but make active choices and adapt the concept to suit the organization’s needs. Through this process of adaptation, the organization will be able to increase the odds of performing a predictable and successful implementation. Originality/Value – This paper provides a critical perspective on the discourse surrounding Lean Production, and gives an input to the discussion of the implementation of management models. Keywords – Lean Production, Definition, Construct Validity, Total Quality Management Paper type – Conceptual paper

1996. 2006). 2000. Based on this. and consequently difficulties in evaluating the effectiveness of the concept itself. 1991 in Boaden. 2004. Lewis. Some authors have made attempts to define the concept (e. and the concept of Lean Production is no exception. The absence of a clear definition has a number of consequences for practitioners seeking to implement Lean as well as researchers trying to capture the essence of the concept. These issues have been addressed by a number of researchers. Shah & Ward. Karlsson & Åhlström (1996) point out that the lack of a precise definition also will lead to difficulties in determining whether changes made in an organization are consistent with LP or not. Hines et al. Following the reasoning of Hackman & Wageman. 1997). A justified question is whether the convergent validity of Lean actually makes any difference – does it matter how we define Lean? There are various opinions on the effects of this. 2007). The lack of a definition will lead to communication difficulties (Dale & Plunkett.although Boaden (1997) states that this is not essential. this question calls for the evaluation of the concept’s convergent and . 1997). Parker (2003) states that the multitude of interpretations on what Lean really is makes it harder to make claims towards the effects of Lean. 2006. This is a valid question for any construct similar to TQM. the definition of Lean Production is highly elusive. Engström et al. RESEARCH APPROACH Hackman & Wageman (1995) reviewed the TQM concept and raised the question of “whether there really is such a thing as TQM or whether it has become mainly a banner under which a potpourri of essentially unrelated organizational changes are undertaken”.g. The paper will conclude with a discussion of the practical implications of the construct validity of Lean. Parker. It will complicate education on the subject (Boaden. 2003) . thus increasing the requirements that researchers specify exactly what they are researching. Researching the subject will be difficult (Godfrey et al. will lead to the realization that they are exceedingly hard to find. 2000). while others have raised the question of whether the concept is clearly defined (cf. an evaluation of the construct validity of Lean will be made. There will also be difficulties in defining overall goals of the concept (Andersson et al. It seems logical that a management concept as popular as Lean should have a clear and concise definition. This will be done through a review of contemporary literature on Lean and summary of practices associated with Lean as well as the stated purpose of the concept. Dahlgaard & Dahlgaard-Park. 1997. PURPOSE OF THE ARTICLE The main purpose of this article is to give a presentation of what Lean Production is.. Much disappointingly.INTRODUCTION When initiating research concerning the concept of Lean Production (LP) one line of questions naturally comes to mind: ‘What is Lean? How is Lean defined? How does Lean relate to other management concepts? What does Lean have in common with other management concepts? What discriminates Lean from other management concepts?’ Seeking answers to these questions. Lewis.

the most influential books were identified. For this article. thus contributing to a conceptual discussion. 1998. An investigation of the books’ citation rankings led to a filtering process with 13 books remaining. This list was verified through using the citation analysis software ‘publish or perish’. The reviewed literature will be compared by listing the characteristics of Lean presented by each author. of which 12 of them contained presentations of techniques and/or overall goals associated with LP. If Lean passes this convergent validity criterion. White et al. Smalley. 1995) In other words. abstract or keywords. Feld (2001). Hackman & Wageman (1995) concluded that TQM passed the tests of both convergent and discriminant validity. (1996). 2004) are very specific on certain tools (mainly value stream mapping). Monden (1998). Oliver et al. These are Womack et al. Dankbaar (1997). (1990). The purpose or goal of Lean should logically be the same for all authors. The idea is that a method. A number of books turned up in the literature search. Rother & Shook (1998). Through reading these and other articles on the subject. Womack & Jones (2003). based on a comparison with TQM. Hackman & Wageman (1995) describe the two kinds of validity as follows: Convergent validity reflects the degree to which [different] versions [of the concept] […] share a common set of assumptions and prescriptions. (1996). . the discriminant validity tells us whether or not a concept carries any news value compared to other existing concepts. (2001). an evaluation of the discriminant validity can be made. making it a good concept to compare against Lean Production. The publications by the Lean Enterprise Institute (Rother & Shook. Dennis (2002). The 12 articles that are deemed suitable for a further analysis are Krafcik (1988). (2001). Jagdev & Brown (1998) and Cusumano (1994). strictly speaking. Ohno (1988). Sanchez et al. tool or goal that is central to Lean will be mentioned by every author on the topic.discriminant validity. Mumford (1994). Jones & Womack. Lewis (2000). The 20 most cited articles from each database were selected for further study. whereas the convergent validity. and were not deemed suitable for a conceptual discussion about Lean in general. James-Moore & Gibbons (1997). Bicheno (2004). tells us whether or not the concept itself really exists. […] Discriminant validity refers to the degree to which [the concept] can be reliably distinguished from other strategies for organizational improvement. the two major citation databases ISI and Scopus have been searched for articles containing the terms “lean production” or “lean manufacturing” in the topic. Jones & Womack (2002) and Smalley (2004). 2002. MacDuffie et al. Shingo (1984). Liker (2004). Concurrence among the authors will signify a high convergent validity. LITERATURE REVIEW The two database searches produced a total of 37 articles. (Hackman & Wageman. Hayes & Pisano (1994). Schonberger (1982).

AN OVERVIEW OF LEAN CHARACTERISTICS Table I on the next page is a presentation of the most frequently mentioned characteristics of Lean in the reviewed books. The characteristics in the table are sorted based on frequency of discussion in the reviewed literature. Failure prevention (poka yoke) and production leveling (heijunka) also seem to be central characteristics of Lean Production. . On the condition that pull production can be seen as a special case of Just-in-time production. indicating that these are central to the concept. Characteristics that have been discussed by less than three authors have been excluded from the presentation. The only two characteristics that all authors discuss are ‘setup time reduction’ and ‘continuous improvement’. all authors lift this characteristic as well. Looking at the table reveals some interesting aspects about the ideas surrounding Lean.

. short time) X Robust production operation Goal One-piece flow Cost reduction Table I A presentation of characteristics associated with Lean Production. low cost. The characteristics are sorted by accumulated frequency.Kaizen/Continuous improvement Setup time reduction Just in time production Kanban/Pull system Poka yoke Production leveling (Heijunka) Standardized work Visual control and management 5S/Housekeeping Andon Small lot production Time/Work studies Waste elimination Inventory reduction Supplier involvement Takted Production TPM/Preventive mainenance Autonomation (Jidoka) Statistical quality control (SQC) Teamwork Work force reduction 100% inspection Layout adjustments Policy deployment (Hoshin kanri) Improvement circles Root cause analysis (5 why) Value stream mapping/flowcharting Education/Cross training (OJT) Employee involvement Lead time reduction Multi manning Process synchronization Cellular manufacturing Womack & Jones (& Roos) X X X X X Liker X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X Bicheno X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X Dennis X X X X X X X X X Feld X X X X X X X X (X) X X X Ohno X X X X X X X X X X X X X X Monden X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X Schonberger X X X X X X X X X X X X Shingo X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X (X) X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X NO! X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X (X) X X X (X) Eliminate waste and reduce costs Improve quality and productivity Cost reduction through waste elimination X X X X make products with fewer defects to precise customer desires Reduce waste and improve value Customer focus (high quality.

ANALYSIS CONVERGENT VALIDITY OF LEAN The characteristics listed in Table 1 (previous page) have some relation to each other. For all but three of the groups all authors have discussed at least one of the characteristics in the group. One way of grouping these characteristics is presented in Table 2 below. 67%) TPM/preventive maintenance Table II A suggestion for a grouping of lean characteristics. motivating an affinity analysis. In the group labeled as human resource management none of the characteristics are discussed by authors Bicheno and Shingo. Through grouping the characteristics a more homogenous image of the Lean characteristics arises. Collective term Just in Time practices (100 %) Specific characteristics Production leveling (heijunka) Pull system (kanban) Takted production Process synchronization Small lot production Waste elimination Setup time reduction Lead time reduction Inventory reduction Team organization Cross training Employee involvement Improvement circles Continuous improvement (kaizen) Root cause analysis (5 why) Autonomation (jidoka) Failure prevention (poka yoke) 100% inspection Line stop (Andon) Value stream mapping/flowcharting Supplier involvement Housekeeping (5S) Standardized work Visual control and management Policy deployment (hoshin kanri) Time/Work studies Multi manning Work force reduction Layout adjustments Cellular manufacturing Resource reduction (100 %) Human relations management (78 %) Improvement strategies (100 %) Defects control (100 %) Supply chain management (78 %) Standardization (100 %) Scientific management (100 %) Bundled techniques Statistical quality control (SQC) (56%. The authors Ohno and Schonberger have not discussed any of the characteristics in . The bracketed figures indicate the percentage of the authors that have discussed at least one of the characteristics in the group.

However. One could argue that the differences in formulation of purpose are very small thus making it a minor issue. “toolbox lean” and “lean thinking”. This indicates that the two groups human relations management and supply chain management are not definable characteristics of Lean. 1990/Womack & Jones. having both strategic and operational dimensions (Hines et al. internally focused (Liker. (2004) and Shah & Ward (2007) respectively. Furthermore. contrary to the findings of Shah & Ward (2003). However. Dennis. A common statement is that “Lean is more than a set of tools” (Bicheno. 2004. Monden. 2002. Schonberger. The division of Lean Production in the two parts discussed above has led to discussions of which one is more correct. Generally speaking. 2004). As discussed above there are two main traditions of Lean. 1988. the bundled techniques have slightly lower figures. Schonberger. The general opinion that the purpose of Lean is to reduce waste does not seem to hold. Neither of the positions are more correct than the other. Lean can be characterized in four different ways. The terms practical and philosophical are substituted by the terms performative and ostensive. 2004. Shingo. Ohno. This is also evident in the differences of goals in the reviewed literature. 1982). Through adapting and combining the four approaches to Lean suggested by Hines et al.the group labeled as supply chain management. 1998.. indicating that they are important (although not vital) parts of the Lean concept. Discrete (Operational) Continuous (Strategic) Ostensive (Philosophical) Leanness Lean thinking Performative (Practical) Table III Toolbox Lean Becoming Lean An illustration of the four definable approaches to Lean Production. there is also another position that argues for a more practical and project based approach to Lean and that “Lean is a collection of waste reduction tools”. 2004. 1984) and externally focused (Womack et al. since Lean exists at both levels. 2003. 2007). . 2004). 1998. However. Bicheno. 1984) argue for this. In addition. 1982. The bracketed terms are the ones suggested by Hines et al. although some authors (Bicheno. but very common among certain practitioners. (2004) and Shah & Ward (2007) respectively. an internally focused cost reduction initiative will differ substantially from an externally focused initiative to improve customer satisfaction. The terms operational and strategic are substituted by the terms discrete and continuous. there are two different types of goals. Lean can be seen as having both a philosophical as well as a practical orientation (Shah & Ward.. the scores are quite high. Feld. This kind of statement is hard to find explicitly in academic texts. Looking at the goals presented by the reviewed authors (Table 1) raises some questions towards the convergent validity of Lean. Monden. 2001. Shingo. arguing for a more philosophical approach to Lean.

Lean can be said to (barely) pass the convergent validity test. 1984. The term discrete signifies a focus on isolated events. In the short-term perspective. This is done through reducing the resources in the system. A major difference between TQM and Lean in this aspect is the precision in defining waste. The term ostensive signifies a shift of focus from general philosophy towards issues that can only be defined by examples. Overproduction. Defects . Waiting. Motion. DISCRIMINANT VALIDITY OF LEAN So what is then the difference between TQM and Lean Production? In the following section Lean and TQM are compared based on the analysis made by Hackman & Wageman (1995). waste or muda is based on the seven forms 1 defined by Ohno (1988).g. Krafcik. 1998). Liker. so that buffers do not cover up the problems that arise. 1995. Although the score is not perfect. Lean seems to be a reasonably consistent concept comprising Just in time practices. whereas performative and practical focus on the things that are done. 1988. change principles and interventions. as well as highlight problems. Monden. the term continuous signifies a process oriented perspective. In the long run. 2003. A common opinion is that the purpose of Lean is waste elimination. 1988. JIT is assumed to decrease total cost. Resource reduction. 2004). defects control. Bicheno. Krafcik. the reduction and subsequent elimination of buffers is assumed to highlight the problems that exist in production. Reducing waste is also a significant part of TQM. Karlsson & Åhlström. such as individual improvement projects using the ‘lean toolbox’ (cf. In other words. 1988). the philosophy of ‘lean thinking’ or ‘the Toyota way’ (cf. 1996). Ohno. although there is no clear agreement among the authors as to the overall purpose of the concept. but waste elimination is definitely an important aspect of the concept. 2004) or the process of ‘becoming lean’ (cf. Shingo.In the Table above four different approaches to Lean Production are presented. 2004. 1998). 1998.g. focusing on the continuous efforts. Dennis. or the final state of ‘leanness’ (cf. Ohno. As a contrast. the reduction of resources implies a direct reduction of cost. 2002. Liker. Sörqvist. 1988). Womack & Jones.g. Basic assumptions Quality In Lean. The literature review does not show support for this being the very purpose. Improvement strategies. 2006). Hackman & Wageman. However. whereas others argue that it is a strategy for reducing cost (e. basic assumptions. quality does not receive the same amount of attention as in the TQM literature. The discussion is done with three different aspects. Inventory. Some authors argue that waste is reduced in order to increase the value for the customer (e. The main focus in the Lean literature is on Just-in-time (JIT) production. thus being a vital source of continuous improvement (e. Overprocessing. but under the banner of poor-quality-costs (cf. Bicheno. whereas TQM has a very general definition of poor- 1 Transportation. Nicholas & Soni. In the majority of the Lean literature. standardization and scientific management techniques. it is hard to formulate a clear definition that captures all the elements of Lean and integrates the various goals in the reviewed literature.

Berggren. including everything that could be eliminated through improvement (Sörqvist. 2003. The extensive discussion about jidoka and poka yoke in the Lean literature suggests that employees cannot be trusted to produce good quality. 2004). 1998. Organizations as systems One thing that Lean and TQM have in common is seeing the organization as a system (cf. Ezzamel et al. Quality is the responsibility of senior management This is another perspective that Lean and TQM share.g. but the rationale for doing this seems to be centered around eliminating the human factor from the system through jidoka and poka yoke. The idea is the same in Lean. The conception that management should analyze and improve the processes and train the employees is also shared by the two concepts. Dennis. Management by fact The literature on Lean does not really stress the management by facts explicitly. . TQM-managers should create structures that support the employees in producing products of high quality (Deming. But there is a slight difference in perspective between the two concepts. this is implicit in the description of Lean practices. whereas Lean seems to be based on theory X (cf. 1995). 1992.quality-costs. Change principles Focus on processes Within the Lean concept the term value stream is usually preferred (Womack & Jones. Jones & Womack. there is a difference. The proponents of Lean Production usually have a strong instrumental and managerial perspective. 1993). thus creating a necessity for removing the possibility of human error from the system. Liker. The term process is usually used at a lower level of abstraction that TQM theorists would call sub-processes or activities (cf. Although this is a shared perspective between Lean and TQM. In the Lean tradition. Bicheno. Rother & Shook. . Womack & Jones. this is not seen as equally important. 1982. 1998). 1998). Using the terminology of McGregor.g. recommending alternative tools such as increased inspection and visualization of problems (e. 2001). Whereas TQM has a strong focus on the internal structure and integration of departments within the organization. However. 2004). some authors argue against the use of statistical tools for analyzing production performance. Hackman & Wageman. Within TQM the analysis of variability through using statistical tools is a central concept (Hackman & Wageman. Riley. 2002). 2002.. 1995). 1986. discussing employees in terms of components in the production system (cf. one could argue that TQM seems to be based on theory Y. Kamata. seeing the internal production operations as a part of a value stream from the sub-suppliers to the end customer (e. In fact. but again with some differences. many of which are analytical tools designed to help achieve JIT production. Employees and the quality of their work One major critique of the Lean concept is that it is generally weak concerning the employees’ perspective. Lean stresses a supply chain perspective. 2003).

Interventions Analysis of customer requirements Customer focus is one of the hallmarks of TQM. with a vengeance” (p. 1995). Both concept stress the point that long term partnerships should be made with suppliers and that improvements should be done in collaboration with them. whether the customer is internal or external. the term process is used in slightly different ways by authors on TQM and Lean. they are often implicated in discussions about improvement activities.g. In TQM measurements are done in order to identify problems and to document improvement. In the Lean literature. However. Thompson & Wallace. but methods for analyzing customer requirements are extremely rare in the reviewed literature. Table 1). different techniques are presented for both overall process level and individual activities. The learning aspects are not emphasized as much in literature on Lean. Bicheno. the question is who is learning.Learning and continuous improvement In the words of Hackman and Wageman (1995) TQM is “pro-learning. Some authors argue that the very purpose of Lean is to please the customer (e. Although this matter is not discussed by all authors in this analysis. which implies that some form of learning is required. Process management techniques As discussed above. 1996). Scientific methods for performance measurement and improvement Both TQM and Lean employ various scientific methods for analysis and evaluation of performance. these methods differ significantly. and the tools associated with one concept are generally not mentioned in literature on the other one. There is a clear focus on continuous improvement. whereas Lean theorists argue that measurements should be made for planning and synchronization purposes. 1998.g. As discussed above. where every improvement should be based on an investigation of the customer’s requirements. 330). Improvement teams are explicitly discussed by just about half of the reviewed authors. The purpose of measurements also differs. focusing more on instrumental techniques for improving system performance. At an organizational level value stream mapping (VSM) can be used for highlighting several kinds of problems in the . The Lean concept does not emphasize customer interests. suggesting this is not a typical Lean intervention. In the Lean literature. e. 2002). However. whereas Lean places strong emphasis on the standardization of work and collective learning (Niepce & Molleman. 2004). the majority of them do (cf. and can be put to use in problem solving or improvement activities. the Lean literature is generally weaker on the human behavior side. for setting production rate (cf. 1988. However. Dennis. Supplier partnerships The suppliers are seen as important in both Lean and TQM. Ohno. TQM is focused on stimulating creativity and individual efforts for improvement (Hackman & Wageman. Improvement teams Quality circles have a central role in much of the TQM literature.

the two concepts differ significantly. Honda and Mazda. thus limiting the ‘universality’ of the concept. The only ‘true’ Lean producers in Japan are confined to the automobile industry. attempts have been made in this article to present the essentials of Lean Production and convey its most salient philosophical elements. only being valid in a certain point in time. Based on this.processes (Rother & Shook. Discomforting as this may seem for Lean proponents. However. leading to the conclusion that Lean is a management concept of its own. regarding the ever changing nature of the type of constructs that management concepts such as TQM and Lean are. one can question whether a definition will be useful at all. different time/work study techniques are discussed. If this is correct. University of Tsukuba – Seminar at Linköping University. implying that any ‘definition’ of the concept will only be a ‘still image’ of a moving target. represented by e. (2004) Lean is constantly evolving. 2004). in particular concerning continuous improvement and the systems perspective. especially regarding humanistic values. whereas other areas of industry are performing at the same level as (or worse than) western competitors. hopefully clearing up some of the confusion that surrounds the concept. at a more operational level. The conclusion from Shah & Ward (2003) that TQM and other bundles are parts of Lean is not supported by this study. 2 This was pointed out more than 20 years ago by Keys & Miller (1984). Also. Lean and TQM have many ideas in common. Lean and TQM – same but different At a philosophical level. When embarking on a journey towards Lean.g. so-called spaghetti charts (e. Nonetheless. there seems to be quite good agreement on the characteristics that define the concept.g. 1998). This does not seem to be the case. This may be an explanation to the apparent differences between authors on the subject. Toyota. The obvious fallibility of the 2 Shu Yamada. Raising the awareness of these differences may help make the message clearer and avoid conflicting opinions on which concept the organization is implementing.g. (1990) argue that the Lean principles are applicable to any industry. At a more operational level. it is important to acknowledge the different perspectives that the concept comprises. The fundamental values of the two concepts are also quite different. leading to the conclusion that the concept is defined in operational terms alone. Formulating a definition that captures all the dimensions of Lean is a formidable challenge. 2007 . then the Japanese should logically have distributed the knowledge of these principles throughout all domestic Japanese industry. it is hard not to raise the question of whether a consistent definition of Lean is possible to produce. According to Muffatto (1999) and Hines et al. e. CONCLUSIONS There is no agreed upon definition of Lean that could be found in the reviewed literature. Bicheno. Womack et al. Lean is also significantly different from its closest relative TQM. and the formulations of the overall purpose of the concept are divergent. Cooney (2002) argues that the possibility to become ‘lean’ (through JIT in particular) is highly dependent upon business conditions that are not always met. implying that the principles constituting LP have not received any wide-spread attention outside the auto-industry.

aiming to find a production concept that agrees with the contextual factors and previous production practices that exist within the organization. .claimed universality of Lean should help motivate an adaptational approach to implementing the concept. Making active choices with regard to values and techniques should increase the odds of succeeding in the improvement of the production system.

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