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What Does "Lean" Really Mean?



The lean start-up. Lean manufacturing. Lean hospitals. Lean management. It seems as though talk of “lean” organizations is everywhere today.

Here at Intellum, we have embraced many of these “lean” principles for years, and as we grow, they continue to be at the core of our organizational processes.

But we’ve found that although “lean” has gotten a lot of news coverage in HR and management circles, there’s still a lot of confusion over precisely what it is, how it works, and who it’s for (it’s definitely not just for manufacturers anymore).

We put together this article to help you understand lean: the history of the movement, how it works for modern companies, and how you can integrate lean methodologies into your organization.


A Brief History of Lean


The basic tenants of “lean” can be found in literature as far back as Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard Almanac. Here, Franklin outlined basic strategies to reduce waste and improve efficiencies.

Fast forward more than 200 years to Toyota in the 1940s. During this time, the company introduced the Toyota Production System (TPS), a production system that sought to produce products in a continuous flow so the company wasn’t reliant on long production runs in order to be efficient.

This was essentially the first introduction of the just-in-time production model. The term lean, as it’s used today, was coined by a research team at MIT’s International Motor Vehicle Program to describe this model.

Over the course of many years, these lean manufacturing methodologies have been adapted to help hospitals, start-ups, service companies, and many others streamline and optimize processes.


The Most Important Element of Lean Thinking


Google the word “lean,” and you’ll find an infinite number of resources. Most likely, they’ll be jargon-littered sales pitches for products and systems.

Beneath all the jargon, is one key concept: Find ways to deliver more value for your customers while using fewer resources.

That’s the key takeaway and what we strive to do here at Intellum.

As it turns out, there’s a fairly simple process for working to achieve this. Here’s how we integrate the lean concepts into our organization and how you might think about integrating them into yours.


Lean for Modern Companies


The lean thinking we use here at Intellum comes from an offshoot of traditional lean methodologies, known as the “lean start-up.”

Before we continue, I want to make one thing clear: You needn’t be a start-up for these methodologies to be relevant.

No matter the size of your organization, every new project, service, or initiative you launch is essentially a start-up within your company. It’s an opportunity to innovate, change and improve (or fail spectacularly).

Treating every new project as a start-up and every employee as an entrepreneur will help you stay ahead of the curve and increase the likelihood that your projects will succeed.


Four Key Elements of Lean Start-Up Initiatives


An entire book could (and actually has been) written on this topic; however, the main elements can be distilled down into four key concepts:

Applying these concepts will allow you to more clearly understand what objectives you’re trying to achieve and to implement solutions that meet those objectives using fewer risks and resources.


• Begin by defining the problem: Beginning with the end in mind, figure out what problem you’re trying to solve.

Get started as quickly as possible: No matter the problem, or gap in the market, you won’t be entirely sure what solution will be effective until you get started. Once you know what problem you’re trying to solve, create a “minimum viable product,” and get it into the market (or deployed in your organization).

Test and incorporate customer feedback: Once you have the product or new program out in the market (or deployed in your organization), seek feedback from customers or internal stakeholders to find out what’s working and what needs improvement.

Continuously develop: Always improve. Always look for new opportunities. Never be finished.


Begin with Your Lean Canvas


The lean canvas is, essentially, a compact way of analyzing and communicating your business model to both internal and external stakeholders. Pictured below, it will allow you to concisely articulate your problem, solution, key differentiators, and steps to success.