Lean principle #4: Improvement is a cycle

“The company is starting a global Lean manufacturing project”. It is easy to hear statements like that because many people believe that Lean is something that starts, moves on and finally ends. In other words, they think Lean is a project. This probably happens because the first contact with Lean for most people is at kaizen events that end up with a new Lean tool in place, but without any further explanation about why the tool is important and how it fits in the cultural and methodological transformation of the company. It is easy to assume that Lean is a set of fancy tools. Well, Lean is not a project or a set of tools. Yes, you will do projects and use tools as part of a Lean transformation (in fact you will do many projects and use many tools), but the point here is that:

  • Lean work is cyclic. It is a series of experiments based on Plan-Do-Check-Act. Lean is not a line, it is a circle.
  • Lean work never ends. There is a starting point but no end point. Once you are Lean, you are Lean forever.

Improvement is a cycle

It takes some time to assume the idea, but operational excellence is a journey without end. Please, don’t confuse “without end” with “without goal” because Lean goal is very clear: maximize customer value. And this goal is the main reason that makes Lean endless:

  • The definition of “value” changes over time. What is acceptable today may be unacceptable tomorrow. What is a delighter today may be just a satisfier tomorrow and a dissatisfier in the near future. Think in features like air conditioning in cars or internet access in mobile phones. The Kano model is one of the available theories to explain customer satisfaction and innovation (picture from “Kano Model, Wikipedia“)


  • Operation systems are not perfect and eliminating waste completely is probably impossible.
  • The environment is complex and difficult to model. That’s why trial and error is the most effective way to test solutions and find improvement actions. Trial and error, however, produce wrong results many times that must be analyzed and corrected

Lean transforms organizations to make them most value oriented and create a learning culture. Lean is a never-ending improvement cycle.

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