The Power of Lean Thinking

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When Capgemini launched a program for Lean Delivery of services and projects, the conscious choice was made not to mix it with other governance or management models. Just a clean implementation of Lean, respecting and applying its distinct fundaments, principles and thinking. Not that this is a transition that can be achieved in a simple […]

When Capgemini launched a program for Lean Delivery of services and projects, the conscious choice was made not to mix it with other governance or management models. Just a clean implementation of Lean, respecting and applying its distinct fundaments, principles and thinking. Not that this is a transition that can be achieved in a simple overnight operation of course…

Does the distinct nature of Lean however exclude any combination? I believe not. But let me highlight no more than some major aspects of Lean first, enough to make the deeper impact apparent.

Definition of Lean?

Lean is, above all, a set of thinking tools, a collection of interwoven principles. The principles form a toolkit of levers that will install a system in which people are enabled to faster create better products in a sustainable and respectful way.

But unfortunately Lean is often, and far too much, taken for or bluntly limited to just… eliminating waste. Although that is an undesirable over-focus on one Lean element only, it gets even worse when the principle itself is broken, when ‘elimination’ is applied to people and not as a mean to improve the process. The highly popular management sport of ‘cost cutting’ tends to twist this important Lean practice into denominating people’s work as ‘overhead’, i.e. non-valuable. Rendering the people doing that work as… disposable.

From that misconception it is a long journey to build up an understanding that Lean is primarily about respecting People in order to optimize Value and Quality. More about creating a context in which people will prosper and perform, than about continuously over-stressing the need for results and performance. It invokes the difficult exercise of letting go of ‘command and control’, of big boss behavior, micromanagement, over-planning (to 100% capacity or beyond) and nano assignments. The long journey should lead to a deep understanding of the underlying ideas and principles of Lean, to looking beyond the formal practices. To the indefinite understanding of the never-ending goal of the mindset andculture that enable and encourage people to continuously reflect on their daily work and self-improve.


The corner stone of any system that claims to implement Lean are the People. And this should be interpreted as every actor of the whole ecosystem involved in or attached to the Lean product development/build: customers, workers, teams, suppliers, managers.

All of these people contribute in their own way and by their own means to building or developing Products. They are organized in a cross-functional way to avoid hand-overs, delays and waiting time. They are empowered and self-managing to make decisions. They focus on knowledge gathering and constant learning. Managers act as teachers with a Go See commitment of going to the workfloor to promote the Lean thinking system, to help people understand how to reflect on their work, the products and how to build better products. The whole system embodies the spirit of Kaizen, the attitude (!) of continuously minding the process, the product and possible improvements. Every member of the whole system can Stop the line if a problem occurs, so the root of the problem can be immediately detected and countermeasures installed. All assuring that Quality will be built in to the Product, acknowledging that Quality cannot be simply added to a Product after it has been built.

A good hands-on practice for root-cause analysis when an error, a defect or a flaw occurs is the 5 Why’s. Keep looking for the next cause, by investigating the ‘why’ of every next answer. Thinking through until the bottom is reached. And it may require more than 5 attempts and the result might be a tree of branched answers…

It has been said, everyone involved in the value chain works in an integrated way. One important example of this is, are the relationships with suppliers and external co-workers. These relationships are not based upon the traditional approach of large volume purchases, big negotiation rounds and pressuring one another. That’s a process that is not only highly disrespectful with regards to the commitment and creativity of the involved people. It is also likely to end up with at least one strangled party. And this party will extend this pressure to internal people creating an highly undesirable and discouraging working environment that will prevent improvement, creativity and learning. It’s all about building relationships on the sharing of profit (and risk!). Mutual growth. Communities and CoP-thinking (‘Center of Practice’). Not only cross-departmental, but even cross-company.


As stated, Avoiding Waste is preferable over Eliminate Waste. At least it implies a subtle difference in timing on when to act… Furthermore, let’s repeat that ‘Waste’ refers to steps in the process, not to disposing of people.

But obviously, no matter how much attention is paid to avoiding it, waste can (and will!) creep in. The Kaizen spirit requires all involved people to be committed, aware and critical in their daily work. Upon that basic attitude, a good tool or practice to actively identify structural waste is Value Stream Mapping. All steps and phases in the process of going from ‘idea’ to ‘build’ are set out on a timeline. Activities may be labeled as valuable or non-value adding, but possibly also as necessary although not directly value-adding. The Value Ratio can be calculated as the ratio of time spent on Value adding activities vs Waste activities. It’s a figure that may serve as a baseline against which improvement can be measured. But, like in all improvement activities, there is no definite end goal, no final process. The improvement itself is the goal. An example of how focusing on the thinking will result to better products.

Inventory, WIP and Flow

Lean strives for continuity and flow. Overproduction of materials is disrespectful as it forces people to do work that is not used. But it also disrupts flow and may delay the discovery of quality issues. Lean says to limit ‘Work in Progress’ (and costly inventory) by producing only materials when there is a Pull signal from the next steps in the process in a ‘Just in Time’ mode.

A Kanban is a physical signal card that is attached to an inventory of parts. New parts are only produced when enough materials have been used for the signal card to appear.

The Kanban software method as promoted by the Limited WIP Society revolves around this practice. It uses Kanban cards to holds user requirements or software demands to optimize the flow that ends in working software. The physical cards are placed on a Kanban board. The board visualizes the process by showing the various states of the work items with limits to the work-in-progress. The limits prevent pushing work down the process and disrupting the flow. Work can only be taken in on a pull base. Metrics are collected upon the flow of the work and the changes on the board, are processed and visualized in diagrams and charts. The Cycle Time is the total time required to complete a work item after entering the process and is an important factor for predictability. A Whole Team focuses on optimizing flow by removing piled up work, thus safeguarding the overall cycle time.

Design and tuning of a Kanban board allows engineering and adaptation of the process, the distinction between various work types and is open for specific lanes across the columns.


There is actually no definite, full-blown, one-size-fits-all, unified, silver bullet Lean process with phases, roles, definitions, artifacts, deliverables, etc. A Lean process must be designed upon the principles and the thinking, and constantly tuned to the actual situation. It’s about adaptiveness. There is no standard Lean process template to be copied.

I personally advise reading the Lean Primer PDF, by Craig Larman and Bas Vodde, to have a quick, but still profound overview of Lean. In this paper the authors stick to the thinking without bombing the reader with details on business or industrial domains, areas and methods. Their paper always proves to be a great reminder of the basics and has been an important source of inspiration for above descriptions. If you can spend some more time, check out their books on the subject.

With regards to software development, Mary and Tom Poppendieck have done a tremendous job in applying and interpreting all Lean aspects from manufacturing to software processes and software products.

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