Lean DNA


It is always good to remember this: Lean is not about the tools, Lean is a thinking system. The Toyota Production System and its tools (SMED, 5S, Kanban,…) have often been considered the same thing. Everybody working with lean has probably made this wrong assumption at some point, but TPS is much more.

The classic article “Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System”, by Steven Spear and H. Kent Bowen (HBR, Sept 1999) helps understand that TPS greatest achievement is to create a global community of scientist who use PDCA to establish hypothesis and test them. In other words, it creates a rigorous problem solving culture. Read the full article here:


Thomas L. Jackson (Hoshin Kanri for the Lean Enterprise) has summarized it this way: “The major question in assessing [Lean] development is: To what extent has scientific PDCA thinking become part of the company’s culture?“. This idea can be articulated in 5 rules:

  • Rule 1: Standardize processes & work
    • Reduces variability
    • Improves quality & learning
    • Creates controlled conditions for improvement
  • Rule 2: Zero ambiguity
    • Customer requirements must be absolutely clear to everybody working in the value stream
  • Rule 3: Flow the process
    • Material and information move in the most direct way
  • Rule 4: Speak with data
    • Decisions taken at the lowest possible level
    • Decisions takes as close to real-time as possible
    • Decisions based in PDCA
  • Rule 5: Develop people
    • Workers who are problem solvers
    • Leaders who are teachers

The best strategy to develop Lean is to find your own way of applying Lean rules and not to simply “copy and paste” Toyota tools. Implementing tools without much thinking rarely works, creates frustration and ultimately makes everybody lose faith in continuous improvement.

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