One of the common misperceptions about Lean is that it is effective only in a manufacturing environment. While it is true that this is where it has its roots, the principles of continuous improvement that went along with Lean manufacturing were used throughout Toyota in its early days. The most tangible, obvious application of Lean, though, was on the shop floor. When people first became interested in what Toyota was doing, they focused on what was easy to see.
Fast-forward many years, and as Lean started becoming more mainstream, some of its forward thinkers came to the same conclusion that Toyota did years earlier. They asked themselves, if these basic principles worked to produce widgets, could they also be used to process information and manage a company?
The answer has been a resounding yes. Initially, Lean spread from the shop floor in manufacturing organizations to their back offices. Then it became ingrained in their management systems. Eventually, as people moved about the workforce, they brought their continuous improvement lessons with them. A marketer in a manufacturing company could apply the same tools in a service organization. As more examples of this repurposing became available, the concept of the Lean office really took off.
Eventually, more specialized forms of Lean followed. The healthcare industry looked at the success of formal continuous improvement efforts, and created its own version. Lean government is on the rise. There are rumblings of Lean education are growing louder.
The truth, though, is that many of the Lean tools are not a seamless fit. SMED looks different in the office than it does on a large CNC machine. Takt time is less rhythmic in service environments.Kanban cards are far more useful to track buckets of bolts than to track ones and zeros on a computer network.
But the power of Lean is not in its tools. It lies in its systematic way of thinking about problems and the focus on flow. Those concepts transfer well across most industries and functions.
A final point is that Lean has evolved significantly. In its original usage, it was most commonly called Lean manufacturing. Over the years, “manufacturing” has increasingly dropped off. Lean has also become much more synonymous to the generic term “continuous improvement” than to the original set of tools that started in the books Lean Thinking and The Machine That Changed the World.