What Is Lean Methodology and Is It for You?

Lean Processes

The Lean model was developed over seven decades ago, although it has existed under the name Lean for only forty years. It focuses on the continuous improvement of the following three business issues: 

  • Purpose 
  • Work process 
  • People 

To prosper, a company needs to concentrate on the ways of solving their customers’ problems. Furthermore, it ought to apply Lean Six Sigma as a process improvement methodology, aiming to eliminate problems, reduce waste, and enhance working conditions. Finally, an enterprise that is in the process of Lean transformation should rely on shared leadership and responsibility.

Even though the Lean model first had its use in manufacturing, it is now widely used across various industries. Its growing popularity is the result of the positive impact it has on overall business performance thanks to its primary values. Today, the Lean methodology has its uses in a wide range of areas, from manufacturing to software development and healthcare.

The following two concepts represent the core of the Lean methodology: 

  • Respect for people 
  • Continuous improvement

The Lean methodology suggests that people involved in providing the service or producing the product often have the best ideas. That is why an organization relying on Lean takes the perspective of people closest to the customer or the finalized product into account. 

According to the Lean model, continuous improvement is obligatory on a daily basis. Moreover, it is every project team member’s responsibility to improve the organization’s processes.

The History of the Lean Model

Lean has been one of the major project management methodologies for more than seventy years. It dates back to the late 1940s when the Toyota Production System (TPS) established the foundations of Lean manufacturing. The company’s goal was the reduction of processes that did not contribute to the finalized product in terms of its value. The cited method of product improvement is now referred to as the elimination of waste, and it represents one of the core principles of the Lean methodology. By implementing it, the TPS managed to accomplish notable improvements in efficiency, productivity, as well as the value of its services.

Even though the application of Lean is traceable to the late 1940s, the Lean approach to project management did not have a proper name until the late 1980s. It was John Krafcik, the current CEO of the Waymo project, who came up with the term Lean in 1988. He addressed the subject in his article entitled “Triumph of the Lean Production System.”

The Lean Methodology in Software Development

Once its benefits became apparent, the Lean model began to expand. Software development was the first field other than manufacturing in which the Lean model was applied. The book entitled “Lean Software Development: An Agile Toolkit,” written by Mary and Tom Poppendieck and published in 2003, describes the application of the Lean methodology principles to software development.

Over the years, Lean software development has become one of the most favored software development methods. It relies on seven principles that we will now list and briefly elaborate on.

  • Eliminate Waste
  • Build Quality In
  • Create Knowledge
  • Defer Commitment
  • Deliver Fast
  • Respect People
  • Optimize the Whole

Eliminate Waste

The Lean methodology describes waste as everything that does not contribute to the product or service. Toyota defined the following seven wastes (referred to as mudas). 

  • Overproduction: producing an item ahead of time;
  • Unnecessary transportation: transport of inventory, such as hardware for a data center, that is deemed needless and risky;
  • Inventory: unnecessary inventory is space- and time-consuming and can be the cause of delayed innovations;
  • Motion: needless movements of workers;
  • Defects: quality issues lead to rework and ultimately increase the cost;
  • Over-processing: unnecessary use of advanced tools which prove to be money-consuming;
  • Waiting: time delay between value-adding phases.

Of course, when applied to software development, these wastes appear a bit differently. 

Lean Methodology Mudas

Build Quality In

Incorporating quality into their work is every team’s goal in addition to the reduction of waste. However, a team may accidentally create waste while attempting to ensure quality. That is why there are Lean development tools designed specifically for this purpose.

Create Knowledge

Creating knowledge encourages teams practicing Lean to correctly document and preserve valuable learning. They can accomplish the task with the help of tools such as documentation, knowledge sharing sessions, and training.

Defer Commitment

Rather than making detailed plans in advance, teams practicing Lean ought to collect all the necessary information before making a decision. The team must conduct thorough research before committing to a project.

Deliver Fast

Lean teams aim to deliver high-quality products to their customers as fast as possible. Therefore, they need to reflect on elements slowing that process down. Ultimately, simplicity is key — they ought to find a simple solution and offer it to the customer.

Respect People

Proactive communication among members of a Lean development team creates a positive work environment as well as the best possible results. It is accomplished through healthy conflict and open dialogue. 

Optimize the Whole

Optimizing the whole suggests the elimination of cycles that decrease the quality of the service and slows down the development process. Namely, to deliver fast results, Lean development teams often release faulty codes. Moreover, there is sometimes a time delay between the writing of the code and its testing.

Lean Project Management in Business: The Lean Startup

It was thanks to an engineer and entrepreneur Eric Ries that the Lean model found its use in startup businesses. Ries established a methodology relying on the Lean principles to help startups prosper. In 2011, he collected his ideas and published a book entitled “The Lean Startup”. Ries based his concept on five principles whose purpose is to enhance startups’ response to changes and flexibility.

From the business perspective, the purpose of the concept is to abbreviate product development cycles as well as to determine the viability of a particular business concept rapidly.

The Five Core Principles of Lean

In this chapter, we will discuss the core principles of the Lean methodology. They are, as follows:

  • Identify value,
  • Map the value stream,
  • Create continuous workflow,
  • Develop a pull system,
  • Seek continuous improvement.

Identify Value

Every enterprise strives to provide a service or offer a product for which a customer is prepared to pay. To accomplish that, it needs to review its service or product from the customer’s point of view. Namely, the value of a particular service or product is determined by the customer’s needs. It lies in the solution to their problem, or more precisely, in the particular part of the solution they are willing to pay for. Every process that does not contribute to the value of the requested service or product is redundant and thus deemed waste.

To identify the value of its service or product, a team practicing Lean ought to answer the following questions.

  • What are the customer’s requirements?
  • When and why do they need them to be met?
  • How can our service or product fulfill their requirements?
  • When and how will we be able to deliver the service or product they require?

Once the team has identified the value of its service or product, it can proceed to the following step.

Map the Value Stream

The purpose of value stream mapping is to plan the process of providing the service or delivering the product to the customer. It must include every person and action involved in that process. Value stream mapping demonstrates the value flow through the team, thus enabling you to detect and minimize waste. 

Applying this principle allows you to see how much each stage of the process contributes to the result. Namely, it allows you to differentiate between each step based on its contribution.

Mapping the value stream is equivalent to painting the big picture. Therefore, once you have done it, you will be able to monitor the responsibility of every member of your team. Moreover, the map will indicate all the steps that do not contribute to the value of the service or product. 

Create Continuous Workflow

Once you have mapped the value stream, you can proceed to create a continuous workflow by looking over every step in the process, aiming to enhance efficiency and eliminate waste. 

You ought to bear in mind that the process of developing a service or product is likely to require cross-functional teamwork. Therefore, the best way to achieve continuous workflow is to divide your team into small groups. That way, you will be able to supervise and visualize the workflow of your team, as well as to detect and remove any problems that may occur.

There are some questions the team manager can ask to achieve continuous workflow. 

  • What are the necessary tools for each step of the process?
  • Is every tool necessary at every point in the process?
  • Can we minimize the time delay between two steps?
  • How can we reduce the number of steps required to deliver the value to the customer?

Develop a Pull System

Creating a stable workflow enables your team to complete tasks faster while putting less effort into them. Nevertheless, it calls for a pull system.

Developing a pull system requires you to observe the business operations on the value stream map in reverse. Namely, you need to take the customer’s point of view of the service or product into account and deliver it only when there is a need for it. Therefore, a pull system allows you to optimize the capacity of your resources. Additionally, an effective pull system enables you to eliminate all the time-, space-, and money-consuming operations.

The key questions you should answer to develop an effective pull system is the following: How can we modify our approach to ensure that the quantity we have corresponds to the quantity the customer needs?

Seek Continuous Improvement

As we have already stated, continuous improvement represents one of the two pillars of the Lean methodology. It is also its crucial principle. Even though completing the four previous steps signifies a stable management system, you need to be aware that various problems can occur at any stage of the process. Therefore, you must ensure that your team members actively seek to improve the process at all of its stages.

There are diverse techniques that you can utilize to that end. One of them suggests having daily meetings to discuss the tasks that have been completed, as well as the issues that may have occurred.

The Three Ms of the Lean Methodology

The Lean methodology was established around the premise that everything that does not contribute to the value of the finalized product is a waste. Given the fact, the TPS detected three types of waste that need to be eliminated: muda, mura, and muri.


We have previously listed the seven wastes that constitute muda, which translates into wastefulness, futility, and uselessness. Muda directly contradicts the work that contributes to the finalized product in terms of its value. Namely, muda is every process or activity that does not add value to the service or product for which the customer is willing to pay. 

This type of waste is subdivided into two subtypes. Type 1 muda is a necessary process or activity that does not add any value to the result. One example is safety testing. Although it does not add value to the service or product, safety testing is mandatory so that the product delivered to the customer is safe. Type 2 muda comprises all the activities in the development process that are neither necessary nor contributing to the value of the product. Therefore, all the activities recognized as type 2 muda ought to be eliminated.


Mura translates as unevenness, irregularity, and non-uniformity. Its existence results in the existence of muda, which means that it has the seven wastes as its direct consequence. Some examples of mura are the uneven capacity of the workstations in manufacturing, fluctuating customer demands, variations caused by downtimes, machine malfunction, repetitive actions, the influence of defects, lack of staff, and lack of necessary tools or materials. Mura creates waste in the form of delays, overproduction, and so on. 


Muri signifies the type of waste that can be categorized as overburden, excessiveness, or unreasonableness. It can appear as a consequence of mura and even excessive elimination of it. It appears when the capacity of operators or machines is exceeded. Other examples of muri are faulty workplace organization, unreliable machines and a lack of proper maintenance, poorly trained staff, and overplanning. Muri can lead to employee absenteeism or machine malfunction.

The Advantages of the Lean Model

The development of the Lean methodology has created numerous benefits for various industries. We will sum them up in the following lines.

  • A Reduction in Cost

Lean focuses on maximizing profits. Although a vast number of factors influence the price, organizations can control and reduce their costs. That can be achieved through the elimination of money-consuming waste, such as unnecessary transportation and over-processing. As a result, organizations’ savings maximize their profit.

  • Enhanced Customer Interaction

One of the focal points of the Lean methodology is the customer’s perspective. Communication with the staff and their response to the service or product are essential for the elimination of waste. Namely, taking the customer’s experience into account allows the leaders to determine what the company can afford to lose.

  • The Use of “Push and Pull”

Having an effective pull system and prioritizing it over a push system allows organizations to base the early steps of the production process on the final ones. Namely, a stable pull system enables them to avoid overproduction. Instead of piling up inventory, they reduce costs by ordering only what they need.

  • Enhanced Quality

The Lean methodology suggests paying attention to details. Such a mindset results in the reduction of defects and, ultimately, an optimized process. Therefore, instead of having to remake their products (and pay their workers extra), organizations practicing Lean optimize their processes, thus avoiding mistakes and ultimately saving time and money. 

  • Constant Improvement

Organizations practicing Lean are used to seeking daily improvements. Namely, the implementation of Lean causes employees to adopt a new way of thinking. Thus, they become open to development. As a result, they are likely to add to the value of their service or product and reduce waste.

  • High Employee Morale

Given that the Lean methodology values open dialogue, employees feel empowered and capable of making the right decisions. In short, regular communication between managers and employees increases employee morale. As a result, the quality of work improves.

Lean Model Advantages

The Disadvantages of Lean Project Management

Despite its numerous benefits, Lean also has certain drawbacks.

  • Inventory Problems

Since organizations practicing Lean seek to decrease inventory, they always depend on suppliers. Any disturbance of inventory processes can lead to delays. As a result, the company is unable to deliver its products quickly and efficiently.

  • Transition Problems

The implementation of the Lean methodology requires time, patience, and training. That is why some employees may be resistant to the transition. That especially affects long-tenured employees, who tend to get comfortable with one way of working. To implement the model, managers must be transparent in regards to all the modifications it may cause.

  • High Expenses

If a company has never applied Lean, its implementation may turn out to be rather expensive. It may require specific training programs and other equipment, which can result in high costs for an organization.

  • Over-structuring

Given the Lean principles, those who are unfamiliar with the methodology may be tempted to over-structure. To avoid over-structuring, managers need to evaluate every element of the management and eliminate the redundant ones.

Closing Thoughts

At its core, the Lean methodology is about respect for people and continuous improvement. It relies on five solid principles that can enhance the efficiency of your team and the quality of your product. Additionally, the implementation of Lean can reduce unnecessary steps in the production process, as well as the cost of your company.

That being said, you need to make sure that your organization meets all the requirements before implementing the model to avoid over-structuring and inventory- and transition-related problems. 

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