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Lean Manufacturing Defined: A Conversation with an Expert

By: Berenice Mengo

May 6, 2021

Lean Manufacturing Defined: A Conversation with an Expert

What is Lean Manufacturing defined by? When presented with the idea of Lean Manufacturing, we often only think about reducing waste. While this is important, it is not the end goal. It is merely the “How” and not the “Why”. It is precisely because of this misconception that so many companies get Lean Manufacturing wrong.

True Lean Manufacturing is about strengthening your processes to be flexible, efficient, and balanced. There is no point in mitigating waste if it leaves you weaker in the end. Lean Manufacturing enables companies to act with strength, agility, and resilience amongst the fast-paced changes and progressions of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Under the current technologies of Industry 4.0, we are seeing Lean Manufacturing taking on a whole new dimension of capabilities. It is supercharging the Lean initiative on a global scale.

The Expert: Our Very Own Simon Spencer

Lean manufacturing defined by expert

Before we start our discussion, we’ll need to introduce our key expert. Simon Spencer is the Solutions Architect at VKS (Visual Knowledge Share Ltd.), a software company that offers digital work instruction solutions to manufacturers worldwide.

Before being the Solutions Architect for VKS, Simon started his career two decades before in the UK at Toyota. This is the very company that created the Lean Manufacturing philosophy that has since impacted the business world to this day.

Since his time at Toyota, Simon has provided Lean Manufacturing consultation and tools to every company he works with. Much of our discussion will center on Simon’s unique and in-depth take on Lean practices, the current Industry 4.0 potential, and how it is extremely relevant for modern companies.

Lean Manufacturing Defined

Lean Manufacturing is a management methodology inspired by the Toyota Production System (TPS). It focuses on minimizing the resources used to produce large quantities of goods or services while maintaining and improving quality.

Essentially, Lean Manufacturing is about adding value, saving money, and reducing waste.

As these concepts are universal for all businesses, the Lean approach has expanded from the manufacturing industry to many other sectors. The Lean approach has now become the most advanced way to efficiently run a company.

Lean Manufacturing strengthens your process and enables your operation to be less wasteful, appropriately flexible, and well-balanced.

Car assembly line

The Three Enemies of Lean Manufacturing

To get a real picture of what “lean” is in a manufacturing setting, we need to look at what should be trimmed away from our operations. There are three enemies that prevent companies from truly becoming stronger and leaner. They are laid out using the following Japanese words:

  • Muda (uselessness): Much of today's Lean Manufacturing philosophy centers around the 8 wastes of Lean Manufacturing. We want to trim the fat and cut out wasteful activities. This means eliminating or reducing the impact of areas that produce waste or are useless within the value stream of the product or service.

  • Muri (overburden): Muri can be the result of removing too much waste (Muda) from your operation. True Lean Manufacturing requires a little give and flexibility. Running your operations at 100% capacity leads to overburdened people and machines. Absenteeism and breakdowns then lead back to longer periods of uselessness (Muda) which waste time and money. We want to be lean but we don’t want to cut down to the muscle or bone.

  • Mura (unevenness): If a production line does not flow, then inefficiencies will inevitably occur. Combating Mura in your operation is about finding balance across your organization. Unevenness can be found in many areas of production, such as customer demand (takt time) or process/cycle times per product and per worker.

Pro Tip: Muda, Muri, and Mura can be significantly reduced by standardizing working methods and tracking KPIs with an intuitive work instruction software.

Lean vs. “Misunderstood Lean”

According to Simon, there is “Lean” and there is “Misunderstood Lean”.

Lean Manufacturing is about minimizing resources to achieve better quality results. There is no point in making your operation lean if it creates a weaker system that produces less quality. To achieve quality results, you’ll have to eliminate inefficient processes while creating a system that runs rain or shine.

Simon goes on to explain, few companies practice proper lean as they tend to misunderstand what a truly lean system is. They are either:

  • Under Lean: Being under lean means the company hasn’t reached the Lean Manufacturing standards of optimum production. There is still too much waste in the system.

  • Beyond Lean: Being beyond lean is when the system can’t handle a single issue without stopping the whole workflow. They’ve removed so much waste that the operation is no longer flexible or resilient to natural shifts and changes.

It is important to find the right balance to keep your operation running smoothly. For example, let's say you cut out your whole inventory for the purpose of cutting costs. In this case, you may not be able to satisfy customers if there is a stall in production. And if you maintain too much of an inventory, then you are wasting money and space. Lean Manufacturing is all about balance.

Lean is Continuous Improvement (Kaizen)

Kaizen is a Japanese word that means “change for better” and is synonymous with the concept of continuous improvement. It is a method where companies work to constantly increase the quality of their processes, products, and services. Simon tells us that this is integral to the Lean Manufacturing philosophy.


To stay Lean, companies need to look at their operation and work to continuously improve processes. Lean methods are never static and always evolve to meet the needs of the market and business.

If your customers are getting lost in the customer service journey, map out the process and seek new ways to improve the customer experience. This can be through cutting out redundancies or improving points that provide value. This will streamline the process and make customer service easier, stronger, and more reliable for your employees and your clients.

According to Simon, Lean Manufacturing should never hinder your willingness to improve and sometimes make mistakes. Every company makes mistakes! But under proper Lean Manufacturing and Kaizen, even failure can be a tool for success.

Mistakes are excellent opportunities to acknowledge issues that potentially cause waste. This in turn leads to a stronger, leaner, and more capable company.

Pro Tip: Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control your continuous improvement efforts with the DMAIC approach. Using the right tools and methodology makes Kaizen more effective than ever.

How is Lean Manufacturing Defined by Industry 4.0?

Industry 4.0 technology is making Lean Manufacturing and continuous improvement easier and more achievable by the day. In the current era of industry 4.0, manufacturers are better able to connect with their processes, equipment, and people to pursue a smarter and more effective operation.

What is possible with Lean Manufacturing is now being defined by the seemingly limitless capabilities of Industry 4.0. And that is very exciting!

Technical assistance systems, IoT, and more are enabling manufacturers to attain smarter processes, quickly share best practices (Yokoten), gain in-depth knowledge, and pursue leaner operations.

2 Types of Technical Systems for Modern Lean Manufacturing

There are two types of modern technical systems helping people make decisions and run their operations. They are:

  • Assistance Systems: These support people by regrouping and displaying information in an understandable format. This helps people to track data trends over time and find quick and effective solutions to critical issues.

  • Cyber-Physical Systems: These are capable of physically supporting humans by performing various tasks that are unenjoyable, overtiring, or dangerous. Cyber-physical systems can make their own decisions and execute their tasks independently. In case of exceptions, meddling, or contradictory objectives, the identified tasks are managed by computer-based algorithms.

Equipping your factory with smart systems that give you the right information while autonomously maintaining a strong production flow is invaluable.

IoT Gives You the Right Information at the Right Time

When we hear the term Internet of Things (IoT), it can be intimidating. But in reality, IoT is essential to modern manufacturing. Technology is constantly evolving to make life and work easier, and IoT is a major part of that development.


IoT helps people and systems in two major ways:

  • It enables technical assistance systems to give you accurate real-time information. You have the ability to know the ins and outs of your production lines. Areas that produce any form of waste are now evident and ready to be improved with accurate data tracking

  • It enables seamless communication between autonomous cyber-physical systems to make intelligent decisions. Your production line can effectively work and self-regulate as a digital ecosystem. Errors are caught early in the production line or supply chain. This enables the system to find solutions or alert the appropriate personnel before issues waste time and money.

Connecting your factory with IoT helps get real-time data for rapid and instant decision-making. Industry 4.0 is all about communicating and sharing information faster than ever. Live decisions, live actions.

Yokoten: Best Practices Sharing

Yokoten is a Japanese term that means “across everywhere”. It is the practice of connecting the workforce to share key data and best practices across your entire business. With industry 4.0, the reach and speed of Yokoten has increased immensely.

Instead of using paper or even e-mail, lean manufacturers use advanced tools and systems to create a network that communicates valuable reports and methods instantly around the world. Under Yokoten empowered by Industry 4.0, continuous improvement and other advancements are shared by the entire company, enabling quick adaptation and adoption of new and improved methodologies.

Industry 4.0 is making Yokoten faster; sharing your best lean practices in all your facilities wherever they are on the planet.

Adapt to Change or Disappear

Simon tells us that every company needs to adapt to change or risk falling behind. New technologies enable companies to increase knowledge, decrease waste, and improve efficiency.

adapting to change

To stay relevant and competitive, companies need to take a hard look at their production lines and ask themselves: How can we take the best practices and pair them with the best technologies to create a lean, efficient, and strong operation?

Lean Manufacturing is a powerful methodology and Industry 4.0 gives you the tools to truly achieve an efficient business model. Lean Manufacturing paired with the capabilities of Industry 4.0 is the best way to succeed in any business today.

Curious to learn more? Reach out to Simon Spencer to see how your company can go lean with VKS. Or book a demo today!

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