The Five Principles of Lean & How to Implement Them

Updated Sep 22, 2022.
The Five Principles of Lean

One of the major reasons why projects fail is due to weak resource planning and overrun budgets. Successful project managers use lean principles to eliminate waste and inefficiencies.

Lean manufacturing principles help managers reduce production costs and maintain a competitive edge. You can apply lean principles in any industry, from software development to the healthcare industry.

This article will teach you the five lean principles and implementation strategies for significant product efficiency and quality improvements.

What is Lean?

Lean involves making deliberate and stringent efforts to eliminate waste. The lean project management methodology focuses on creating the most value from an efficient environment that provides room for growth and project efficiency. 

Lean implementations in your organization require the organization hierarchy to follow the three pillars of lean, which are:

  • Identifying wastes
  • Encouraging daily improvements
  • Recording daily improvements

Implementing lean practices in an organization's environment is an iterative process. It helps identify gray areas in the value streams and focuses on process improvement in delivering the highest possible customer value. 

A process must pass through lean multiple times to eliminate waste and anything considered waste in the organization. 

Lean principles adapt to different industries and project management scenarios. It often grows with the industry in which it is being implemented, making it one of the things that makes lean principles effective for your organization. 

You can apply the lean methodology in the software and product development process to eliminate waste, ensure faster delivery of deliverables, and improve the process. 

Agile Lean Software Development
Source: Lvivity

Lean principles are now becoming data-driven due to the shift in the world's economy towards the Internet of Things (IoT) and Industry 4.0 as it grows with industries to meet customer demand and deliver the most value to them. 

Key Elements of Lean Management

Initially described by the Founders of Lean Enterprise Institute in 1997 as the foundation for the entire lead methodology, lean management principles have brought the needed change to the manufacturing process. 

In their project management book, “The Machine that Changed the World,” Womack and Jones described lean principles as the ultimate recipe to improve the efficiency of a work environment. 

Lean project management, with its methodology, originates from Toyota's production system designed to eliminate waste and save costs in its manufacturing operations.

Although many countries and industries are now implementing lean principles to their organization's processes, lean offers the perfect value to industries that depend on physical manufacturing and engineering processes.  

From the healthcare industry to software development, principles of lean are helping lean organizations become more efficient in their operations while providing them with the competitive edge needed to succeed.

Here are some of the key elements of lean principles: 

1. Define Value

The first lean principle requires you to identify and define the team's value regarding work, as distinguishing between the value-adding processes from waste processes helps lay the foundation for the lean approach. 

To better understand your organization's value, you need to construct a reference point that defines the end product of your processes and the value offered to customers for this product. 

In unique circumstances, your company is the customer you seek to improve. In this case, you aim to improve the organization's overall value instead of providing direct value to an end customer.

As identified in lean management, waste can either be pure, which poses immense danger to the flow of work, or necessary as they help provide the needed support for the value-adding processes.  

Define Value - lean management
Source: Lean Way

In novel products or technologies, customers might not have the slightest clue of what they want. 

Lean principles afford you a series of qualitative and quantitative techniques such as interviews, surveys, and demographic information to understand better what would bring the most value to such customers. 

2. Map the Value Stream

The second lean principle comes after you have identified the value of your processes and deals with value stream mapping.

Creating a visual view of the customer path is crucial using Kanban software. You can do this effectively with the help of Kanban boards, as it helps map out every step of your operational process to create a visual view of your team's value stream.

Kanban boards function as a vertical flat surface with columns highlighting the three stages of a task or project: to do, work in progress, and done.

Map the Value Stream - Kanban boards
Source: KanbanFlow

Mapping your process should be made as precise as possible with the inclusion of steps that comprises each of the three stages to provide a detailed and broader outlook of your process.

A lot of focus should be placed on value-adding steps of your process when mapping out your value stream to create an efficient lean operation that is easily adjustable as the process evolves. 

The ultimate goal of mapping out value streams is to use the value customers hope to gain as a reference point to identify all the required activities that help the organization deliver these specified values to customers. 

3. Create Flow

Flow is a fundamental concept in lean management. Any wait time in the process that is longer than expected is considered a waste and needs to be eliminated to ensure a smooth flow of value.

The major drawback to creating a smooth flow of value is hindrances in the workflow of your process.

As a manager, you must closely watch these areas and how they progress to understand and resolve the issues.

The common drawback witnessed in any process occurs at the review stage. It is often overwhelming due to the number of inputs coming in and the fewer available hands to check these inputs, leading to a stall in the process.

Canceling out bottlenecks in your process ensures smooth and lean flow and can be effectively done by limiting the number of tasks teams can have running in progress simultaneously. 

Multitasking can negatively affect the team's productivity. This fact needs to be made known to the team while finding the right balance concerning the number of tasks they can have running simultaneously to achieve a smooth flow.

Other ways of canceling out bottlenecks and creating a smooth flow involve:

  • Breaking down complex steps
  • Creating cross-functional departments
  • Leveling workload
  • Reconstituting production steps

4. Establish Pull

Establish pull, the fourth lean principle, comes after successfully creating a smooth workflow and requires you to establish a pull system for your organization. 

The idea behind establishing a pull depends on demand. It requires you to take up new tasks only when there is a demand. Your team can meet the market as the goal is to produce the exact value customers need. 

Push vs. Pull System

As opposed to the push system, the pull system is the one in which the lean management methodology is built. 

In a push system, tasks are created and then pushed onto individuals by someone higher up in the management chain to members willing to carry them out. 

In contrast, a pull system where tasks need processing is stored in a priority queue until capable individuals take them up for processing. 

A pull-based system aims to limit work in progress for better inventory management, as inventory is one of the biggest wastes in a manufacturing process.

Cycle Times and Throughputs

Cycle times and throughputs are two critical metrics (KPIs) on which you need to focus each of your tasks as it helps you achieve the goal of delivering value to your customers. 

The cycle time of your task is when your team is active in trying to complete tasks, while throughput is the number of assignments completed in a predetermined time frame. As a leader, you should aim for shorter cycle times with the highest achievable throughput.

5. Seek Constant Improvement

Continuous improvement is one of the key principles of lean management. The goal of lean teams is to continuously improve every process under them by focusing on activities that provide the most value to customers and eliminate waste. 

In a system where all team members take ownership of their tasks, continuous improvement blossoms as it allows for change and a shared leadership model to be implemented. 

However, this does not translate to giving the team a free hand to run, as lean practices emphasize holding teams accountable.

Lean thinking aims to bring continuous process improvement to your corporate organizational structure by positioning your organization as a learning organization striving towards perfection while constantly delivering products that satisfy customer needs. 

Besides applying each of the five principles of Lean, you will also have the responsibility to enlighten your team and help them understand why each of the Lean principles is important and how it helps the organization build a corporate culture.

Before Implementing Lean Principles, Prepare Your Team for the Change

Before implementing the five principles of lean on which lean management is built, you must prepare all quarters of your organization for this new change for a smooth flow. 

Here are the steps to take in preparing your team for change before implementing lean principles.

1. Set Clear Goals

Before implementing lean principles in your organizational structure, you need to know the end goal and relay it to all the team members so everyone knows what the organization aims to achieve by implementing lean management principles. 

Clearly defining the organization's goals, whether it be optimizing workflows to deliver products faster or aiming to increase the organization's profitability, helps lay down a path that others can relate to in your lean organization journey. 

Setting clear and SMART goals also helps the organization identify obstacles posing as waste that tends to hinder its progress as it seeks perfection. 

SMART - Goals
Source: Indeed

2. Establish a Lean Mindset

After the potential outcome of implementing lean principles in your organization has been determined, the next step is to instill this mindset into all team members. Dealing with humans and trying to get them onboard poses a significant challenge. 

The best way to counter this significant challenge is to first explain to team members the lean principle and the benefits the organization and each team member stand to gain by utilizing this set of principles.

With the team knowing the lean principle is centered on delivering the most customer value and developing an environment based on shared leadership and responsibilities, ensuring continuous improvement, the team is more motivated to embrace this change. 

3. Utilized a Change Agent

If you are unsure how lean management would affect your organization, you should consider starting small by implementing them on a single team based on the success received. 

You should then spread it across all quarters of your organization. This practice is what birthed lean organizations. 

For an organization that runs on an enterprise system, selecting team members to lead the charge change agents in their respective teams is a way of implementing lean management in such scenarios. 

These change agents must be influential in their teams and be equipped to lead the charge in their respective teams. 

Anastasia Belyh

Editor at FounderJar

Anastasia has been a professional blogger and researcher since 2014. She loves to perform in-depth software reviews to help software buyers make informed decisions when choosing project management software, CRM tools, website builders, and everything around growing a startup business.

Anastasia worked in management consulting and tech startups, so she has lots of experience in helping professionals choosing the right business software.