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Lean Thinking
Lean Thinking
Lean Thinking
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There's probably a support group for angry lean practitioners who are moved beyond frustration by 'lean' becoming a not so subtle code word for 'drastic cost-cutting'. 

While it might result in fewer costs, Lean Thinking consists of a set of principles and practices that focus on continuous improvement with the aim of delivering greater customer value with less waste. 


Lean was inspired by the Toyota Production System in the manufacturing space and repurposed to be applied in software development as part of agile methodology, and finally to broader management contexts. Throughout each stage, it has consistently been focused on delivering customer value through continuous improvement and optimisation to reduce waste. 


The five principles of lean were first proposed in 1991 and described as: define value; map the value stream; create flow; establish pull, and seek perfection. In it’s manufacturing guise, lean was popularised through the 2001 Toyota Way, a system to ‘provide the tools for people to continually improve their work’, and which proposed two high-level areas of focus:

  • Continuous improvement: incorporating a long term vision of challenges; kaizen to continuously improve and drive innovation; genchi genbutsu to go to the source and find the facts.
  • Respecting people: to respect, understand and trust others; and teamwork to empower individuals and collaborate effectively. 


When adopted for software development, the principles were expanded by Mary Poppendieck and Tom Poppendieck to 7 principles. There are several iterations of this list, the one below was taken from the Poppendieck website and is explored in their book The Lean Mindset: 

  • Optimise the whole: clarifying purpose and aligning the parts of the system. 
  • Focus on customers: ask the right questions, solve the right problems and design great experiences. 
  • Empower your team: providing purpose, challenge and responsibility. 
  • Reduce friction: stop building the wrong thing and overcome bottlenecks. 
  • Enhance learning: use iterative learning and don’t make expensive-to-change decisions before their time and don’t make them after their time. 
  • Increase flow: create a steady, even flow of work pulled from an understanding of value. 
  • Build quality in: mistake-proof the process, integrate early and often. 

Beyond traditional lean manufacturing practices of operational excellence, lean thinking tends to focus on continuous improvement in all its forms and being flexible about the tools and approaches to achieve this.


As you can see from the variations above, Lean Thinking is a broad term that informs lean manufacturing, lean software development and lean management. As a set of principles, it aligns with Agile Methodology and has broad application to a range of industries. It was referenced strongly in Eric Reis' Lean Startup. 

The model has some links to First Principle Thinking, in that it cuts to the core of delivering value. And it is a counter to Zawinski's Law, which warns against product bloat. 

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Actionable Takeaways
  • Start and end with the customer. 

Be absolutely focused on delivering customer value, which involves understanding customer needs and what they are prepared to pay for. It involves considering what problems you are solving for your customer and how you can deliver them value. 

  • Consider your process and value stream. 

Examine the stages of product development from raw material, development, shipping and customer engagement. Identify which stages and investments are adding value to your customer. 

  • Create flow and reduce friction. 

Consider blocks to the process and areas of inefficiency. Look for improvements that can support continuous and reliable flow. 

  • Make decisions as late as possible, as fast as possible. 

Rather than building plans on predictions, look for ways to optimise so you can deliver at the point of need, fast. 

  • Continuous improvement. 

Use kaizen to tap into staff and grassroots knowledge and observations for a culture of continuous improvement. Not settling for ‘good’ when a marginal improvement is possible. 

  • Respect employees. 

Trust their insights and provide tools, resources and training to improve. And, given the relative negative history of lean approaches on employees, consider wellness and practical support strategies. 

  • Build quality in. 

Create mistake-proof processes by leveraging automation and mitigating risk points.


Lean manufacturing has been criticised for its negative impact on workers — with greater stress arising from the drive to perfection and zero waste. It has also been criticised for its tactical focus, in delivering customer value now, over having a strategic view of future opportunities. 

The focus on just-in-time delivery and minimising stock might create risks in some industries, particularly in the face of unpredictable or high impact demand. 

In Practice

Toyota and lean manufacturing.

The obvious example since they pioneered and literally wrote the book on lean, and even inspired broader agile methodologies. The Toyota Production System captured their approaches and led to increased customer satisfaction and reduced waste in their production process. It still champions this approach, incorporating automation and their just in time model of delivery. 

The BBC and lean software development. 

This academic case study outlines the experience of BBC applying lean software development approaches. This was combined with other agile methodologies including scrum, and led to continuous improvement, reduced risk through iterative delivery, better code, and actual business value.

Lean in healthcare. 

The ThedaCare hospital used lean principles to increase nurse time with patients by 70%. This in turn increased patient safety (the ultimate customer value in their context). It was in part achieved by optimising their processes, including keeping record-keeping systems and medications inpatient rooms. 

Build your latticework
This model will help you to:

Lean thinking is a broad term that informs lean manufacturing, lean software development and lean management. As a set of principles it aligns with agile methodologies and has broad application to a range of industries. 

Use the following examples of connected and complementary models to weave lean thinking into your broader latticework of mental models. Alternatively, discover your own connections by exploring the category list above. 

Connected models: 

  • Agile methodologies: which serves as a broader framework encompassing kanban, scrum and lean development. 
  • Scrum: an approach that is often combined with lean thinking. 
  • Kanban: particularly useful to optimise flow as part of lean thinking. 
  • Black box thinking: to support continuous improvement. 
  • First principle thinking: cutting to the core of delivering value and shedding the rest. 

Complementary models: 

  • Zawinski’s law: challenging design bloat with a lean approach.
  • Red queen effect: the challenge of simply improving processes, when competitors are striving to do the same. 
  • Lock-in effect: considering what would create greatest lock-in as a frame to establish customer value. 
Origins & Resources

Lean Thinking roots can be traced back to Henry Ford’s approach to production lines and the ‘flow production’. However, like kanban and even agile methodology, lean thinking owes much to the innovative work done by Toyota which continued to build on Ford’s contribution. 

These advances were led by Shigeco Shingo and Taiichi Ohno from the 1930s. In particular, they shifted the focus from individual machines to the broader production process and captured this approach in the Toyota Way. These approaches were subsequently given the title of ‘lean’ by John Krafcik in this 1988 article entitled the Triumph of the Lean Production System

Soon afterwards, James P. Womack, Daniel Roos, and Daniel T, Jones published the Machine that Changed the World that further documented and outlined the foundations of lean thinking. 

Finally, lean thinking was supported by mainstream management approaches when it was applied to software development. A key step in this process was the 2003 publication of Lean Software Development by Mary Poppendieck and Tom Poppendieck. 

As with most complex mental models, lean was originated through an evolutionary process of practice and thought. In our diagram, we attribute it to Taichii Ohno and  Shigeo Shingo, given their significant contribution to just-in-time processing and waste reduction — but it’s never as simple as that and we really could have credited several alternatives.      

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