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Intro to the Principles of Lean

Updated: Jun 9


When we think of "Lean" we tend to think of it in conjunction with Six Sigma. But it is definitely a mindset and a way of approaching work that is different from Six Sigma. For example, the goal of Lean is to eliminate waste and is more process focused to establish efficiency and optimization of workflow. We can compare this with Six Sigma which is about achieving effectiveness and is product focused to minimize defects. Combined, Lean Six Sigma can be a very powerful tool for running a strong operation. 

Lean Six Sigma isn't perfect for all things, though. As is the reality of life, we should be open to other ideas and tools that Lean Six Sigma does not provide us. So Lean then provides some great viewpoints, or a mindset, that leads to other ways of working, or as we say it in Disciplined Agile, "WoWs".

One of the first things we should discuss and know about Lean is the Principles of Lean. Understanding these five principles gives us some interesting insights that have driven some of the most successful WoWs that have made good companies great.

These five principles of Lean are:

  1. Identify Value

  2. Map the Value Stream

  3. Create Flow

  4. Establish Pull

  5. Pursue Perfection


Identify Value

The first thing to say about identifying value is that value is in the eye of the beholder, literally. The customer is the only one that can tell us is if something was of value for them. There are three criteria that must be met for a step in a process to be considered a "value add", which we case use to help us know if what we are doing will be considered of value by our customers.

First, it must be something that physically changes the process or product. For example, when a bank teller moves money from an account, or when a machine removes material form a desired shape on a part.

Second, it must be done right the first time. The customer just wants the final product to be something they will be able to use. The rework involved and the high costs of poor operational quality is completely transparent to the customer.

And third, it must be something the customer is willing to pay for. For example, coding involved in creating the perfect look and feel on a website.

Certainly, there will be steps involved in your value stream that do NOT add value but are necessary to ensure the value is created and delivered to the customer appropriately. But while they are necessary, are they really adding value? If the customer came in to do a walk through, would they be happy with what they see?

Map the Value Stream

A value stream is a visual representation of a series of activities that creates something of value and delivers that value to a customer. To these ends, a value stream will always begin and end with the customer. This customer may be internal or external to the organization, and there may or may not have been direct interaction with the customer to know the customer's needs or receive a request for a product or service. Further, a value stream map will indicate the general flow of material and information through each of the processes.

In DA-FLEX (Flow for Enterprise Transformation), we take this to a new level where we look at not only the value streams we know and love today, but also the enterprise itself as a value stream. It's a fascinating and highly effective model to improve results across all development and support teams in the organization. But more on that in another discussion for another day.

Create Flow

To create flow is to move material and/or information through the value stream without pause. In our Disciplined Agile workshops we say, "If you measure the cost of one thing, measure the cost of delays!" This is because all waste will manifest itself into delays. To create flow, one of the most important things we can watch out for is batch size. Limiting the amount of work in progress allows teams to deliver value sooner and allows teammates to maintain focus and avoid task-switching. 

Establish Pull

Pull happens when the receiving process or the customer creates a demand for an action. On our development teams we create pull systems for work items through "Kanban Boards", which allow us to visualize our work and exercise transparency while also being able to pull in work when it is both ready to be worked on and when we have the capacity to do the work. The term "kanban" is from the Japanese word "kanban", which means "signal". We see this system in play, for example, when we grab a carton of milk and the little card slides forward. This card then "signals" to the staff that it's time to restock the milk. Pull systems allow us to create "Just In Time", or "JIT", systems for everything from inventory to training and communications, and even workloads.

Pursue Perfection

Perfection may never happen, but it definitely won't happen if we don't try to achieve it. This means having a firm belief that it is possible to have zero defects and safety mishaps, 100% on-time delivery is possible, we can always lower costs, etc. We can always improve and challenge ourselves to take a fresh look each day at the way we approach our work, always asking ourselves if there is a better way to do business. 

We pursue perfection through various continuous improvement processes. One of the most popular tools out there today is the Kaizen Event, which is a short, usually multi-day evolution that guides a team through a series of steps to identify problems, generate solutions, and implement the solutions, and then monitoring the results to see if the solutions worked. Kaizen Events are made even more powerful when implementing a system for Guided Continuous Improvement such as Disciplined Agile, which is a methodology-agnostic system of working on programs, projects, and operations and provides guidance for improving in a context-sensitive manner. This is a topic we cover in depth in our Disciplined Agile Lean Scrum Master workshops

But ultimately, there is no such thing as continuous improvement if you don't have a healthy distrust of your system and think there is no possible way to improve from where you stand today.

In conclusion, these five principles form the guidance for developing a Lean mindset, which becomes important for anyone interested in becoming a better manager or business leader, working in Agile environments, or implementing Disciplined Agile or scaling Agile effectively. These core principles also form the critical, foundational building blocks for so many other methodologies and theories that are out there. So they are very good to know what they are and what they mean for us as Agile Project Management Practitioners. 

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