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Lean? Or Continuous Improvement?

October 31st, 2007 | By: Martin Arrand

Sometimes people get hung up on semantics. Sometimes it pays to be clear – very clear.

I am currently trying to wade through some waters muddied by misunderstanding and poor use of terminology. My employer has had some good quality experience of Lean (albeit in a fairly small section of its operations) for about four or five years. Now the senior management have woken up to the idea, and have decided that a full Lean programme would benefit the business – without, they admit, a very deep understanding of what they’re getting themselves in for. Let’s leave that issue on one side for now.

What I’ve been grappling with is a difficulty with the terms “Lean” and “Continuous Improvement”. Because understanding of Lean is limited, there is a view that Lean = Tools, and Lean = Manufacturing. For some, Continuous Improvement is an umbrella term that includes Lean, but not exclusively, and also includes Six Sigma and, as one colleague put it “anything else that works”.

Working with military contracts, it doesn’t help that, for instance, the MOD’s Lean programme was led by a team called the LSCIT – Logistics Support Continuous Improvement Team (and in a bitter twist of logic, the LSCIT approach was to use Lean tools on a project-by-project basis, without continuous improvement support).

This is the explanation I’ve been honing:

Continuous Improvement is essential to Lean – it’s really a statement of Womack & Jones’s fifth Lean Principle: “pursue perfection”. Top-down implementations of Lean, or those led (as opposed to facilitated) by experts or consultants, can’t generate the multitude of micro-level improvements that eliminate waste. Only those who do the job every day can see (if properly coached and managed) how to improve.

Lean is not a set of tools – it is an operating philosophy and methodology. Lean is not a term to shy away from – there is bad publicity for the term, but most if not all of that comes from poor implementations and misunderstandings.

You can argue that Lean is not the only methodology for Continuous Improvement. Some consultancies have there own proprietary approaches (often including many Lean elements or drawing on the same source material that Lean did – Deming, Juran, et al.) But Lean is by far the most developed – and rigorously examined and improved – CI approach. My conclusion is that most of the debate is now within Lean than between Lean and other methods.

The final point is that “Continuous Improvement” only arrives in the business lexicon as a translation for the term “Kaizen” – a coinage that is attributed to Masaaki Imai. The literal meaning is “good change”, and though the term has become synonymous with Rapid Improvement Events, it originally referred to the process of constant, daily improvement in an operation.

I hope that clears that up!

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