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Lean - A Primer

A Brief Primer on LEAN

© 2014, Adam S. Keck

Based on:

Four Capabilities of Accelerating organizations

  • Specify precise approach to every task with built-in tests to detect failure and stop on error.
  • Swarm to solve problems – immediate RCA.
  • Share new knowledge throughout organization.
  • Leaders lead by developing above capabilities in every single employee.

Work Flow and System Design

  • LEAN is a framework for successfully designing complex systems and work flows. A system is a collection of related work flows. A company can be viewed as a single complex system that  provides value to customers in return for money.
  • LEAN is a way of working: Every employee uses LEAN work flow every day to both follow and improve the processes for which they are responsible.
  • LEAN is a specific implementation of Deming’s “Plan, Do, Check, Act” (PDCA)
  • Work flows should stop on error or self-regulate (“autonomation”): Each step has built in tests for verification.

On failure, stop the process and trigger an immediate RCA (Autonomation)

  • Start from the delivery of the correct work flow output to its consumer. Each downstream need paces and specifies work upstream in the process (Kanban is a specific method of achieving this goal).
  • Develop the work flow by working backward from the output that exactly fulfills the needs and requirements of final customer (i.e., what Raving Fans calls the Ideal).
  • Mistakes: Human error generally considered only when a person does not follow the current written process or does not verify that the output of each step is correct. All other errors are considered defects in the process that allow errors to occur. This philosophy drives the “Swarm to RCA each failure” capability.

Work Flow Creation Framework (In order)

  • Specify outputs – What does the work flow have to deliver, to whom, when, and what does it mean for the work flow to be successful?
  • Design pathways – Flow of materials, information, and services. Who is specifically responsible for each step in a pathway?
  • Design step connections – Linkages between adjacent process steps
  • Specify task methods – How exactly is each step in each process accomplished successfully?

Work Flow Creation Tools

  • Checklist
  • Automation code
  • Flow chart
  • Input/Output/Handoff chart

Problem Solving (Iterate)


  • Defect-free work flow
  • On-demand work flow
  • Work flow provides only exact output needed by client process or customer.
  • Immediate fulfillment of needed output.
  • Work flow runs without waste
  • Work flow is safe and secure (personnel not harmed, and information and assets secure) 


  • The commonly cited “A3 process” is a specific work flow and presentation format that implements the elements below in a way that ensures customer buy-in at each step.
  • Use graphical elements to efficiently present and confirm information with customers.


  • Background: Why is this problem important?
  • Current condition: Measurements and metrics. Get and confirm information directly.
  • Gap analysis: How do the process and its outputs differ from the ideal (see previous section)
  • Root Cause Analysis: Swarm on failure; analyze gaps from ideal
  • Develop Countermeasures (rapid prototyping = experiments to find right solutions.)
  • Specify target condition: Desired new process with countermeasures in place
  • Measure actual outcome of new process: repeat measurements and metrics
  • Gap analysis and further RCA

Sharing Knowledge

  • Organization-wide sharing accelerates productivity. Everyone follows documented work flows. 
  • See one, Show one, Do one (from hospital LEAN efforts).
  • Codify discoveries for wide dissemination (e.g. Toyota “Lesson learned books” specify what’s feasible/cost-effective for a certain type of output or process)
  • Knowledge-base that stores documented work flows = “company memory”


  • Regularly practice system design and problem solving
  • Develop LEAN skills in all employees, at every level.
  • Practice following work flows with verification of each step to prevent defects.


  • Everyone works using LEAN principles every day. Bottom up – sometimes guided - work flow improvement.
  • Everyone who knows the skills above leads those who are new by teaching them the above skills.
  • Learn to see and solve problems with rapid prototype iterations. Practice this skill.
  • Work flow improvers get and confirm information directly. Nothing is assumed.


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