Build your future Lean like Lean was originally built

Lean is not what it seems. Yes, its origin is most generally recognized as started with the Toyota Production System, then its term was created in 1983, and since then the list of tools and its system approach seem to reach a common ground. However there are not two identical ways to develop Lean both in space -locations where it’s deployed-, and time –moment when you look at it. Considering this point will provide you ways to design your current Lean and its evolution according to your context.


1- The origins and variations of Lean and Continuous Improvement

Was there a Lean before Lean ? Yes, and no at the same time.

  • Yes, because TPS- Toyota Production System was created in 1943 and this is the reference that inspired the Lean term.
  • No, because the word was not used before in this context.

Besides, if we ask today the question on internet: « What is Lean ? » you’ll get over 200 million –different- answers. The relevant question would rather be: « which Lean trend do you refer to ? »

  • Of course, the first trend starts with Toyota. So anyone with an experience in Toyota, or based on Toyota references, will be granted by some relevant credit. A whole branch of experts base their approach on this credibility.
  • It’s however not the only one. As an example, General Electric has been deploying Continuous Improvement through Six Sigma then Lean Six Sigma then Lean through decades, and most of their expertise has expanded through their Master Black Belts outside their organization.

In fact, an expert, consulting company or product organization is in majority based on their own previous experience and results. So the very right question to ask is: « what are your previous objective results, how much did you bring more money to the company ? » As thus, the whole Theory Of Constraints approach has been built on how to increase throughput, reducing inventory and operational expenses.

Today, companies focus on ‘Lean’, this term owns the magic to awaken within top leaders a desire for higher performance. It’s a great marketing that by the way has exploded in companies since Mc Kinsey introduced the ‘Lean Management’ strategy in the 2000 decades, opening to Lean their whole organizational expertise. Let’s just remember that McKinsey did not apply TPS, but Lean tools adjusted to their own experience… Their first transformations were well communicated, however results may not seem as great as what it has been said about it. So, whatever the results of McKinsey Lean Transformation truly are, both all companies and all experts in Lean can be grateful to this corporation to have marketed it and deployed at such scale in business.

In addition, Lean is only one version of Continuous Improvement. Philosophy and religions have been speaking about Continuous improvement for milleniums, and Quality. The Continuous Improvement term has been introduced by Quality, that also has different branches, from ISO to operations control and total quality. Six Sigma it in itself derived from Quality approaches. Let’s see in brief what it looks like:


2- Lean is a ‘Poly-Lean’, a polymorph method built by polymath teams

A polymath is by definition a universal genius (see more detailed article: This is an individual who has developed a broad expertise span in a significant number of different areas. These are at the origins of great inventions. We can find several polymath bright examples. Aristotle was an expert in physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, politics, ethics, biology and zoology. Leonardo Da Vinci was a painter, inventor, engineer, astronomer, anatomist, biologist, geologist, physicist and architect. Nicolaus Copernicus was a polish renaissance astronomer, mathematician, physician, artist, classical scholar, translator, economist, governor, military leader and diplomat. Sir Isaac Newton was an english physicist, mathematician, astronomer and alchemist.

Generally these polymaths do cover both analytical and intuitive sides of the brain, like did Aristotle, Da Vinci, Copernicus, Newton… When this occurs, these polymaths do shape the future since they extract, from these different expertises, common patterns that lead to universal successful principles. Their discoveries then apply in different forms, and can evolve as polymorphs in different application fields.

It’s what happened with Lean. Lean is the result not of one polymath, but several Toyota Leaders who have been building progressively the TPS approach. Looking at ‘The Toyota Way 2001’ construction (see more detailed articles: and, we can identify in this version several contributors and influences.



As well as the TPS and Toyota Way has evolved, so well has the Lean since its first ‘naming’ in 1990. To start giving some examples on the way :

  • Toyoda first worked on loom factories, and the Jidoka principle idea was taken there.
  • Taichi Ohno learned more how to build the TPS from the way the US supermarket in mid 1990s were managing their stores, than from General Motor factories.
  • TPS started with Jidoka principle -stop at quality defect-, Just in Time principle were built and adjusted in the following decades: Kanban, then Heijunka…

TPS leaders have been in fact learning mostly from inventing and engineering side, in various fields, in the analytical approach. However they also used the intuitive side by looking for instance at the flow as a whole, or the company strategy top down and bottom up integration with Hoshin Kanri.

Today, Lean is a true polymorph management system. The way the tools are used and developed depends on the people who are using them, which means that if there is a common culture and benchmarks to improve the whole, each location, at a given instant, is doing it different, with the same underlying principles. This explains, that outside Toyota, trying to copy-paste the tools just doesn’t work, and when Lean is deployed, it is deployed from the person, and also different in each team, location, at a given moment.

This polymorphism is logical since any method is based on experience, of one or several persons. And such based experiences are both helping and imperfect at the same moment. They are valid in a given context. And, the way to build ‘your Lean’ in your company will also be a polymorphism approach, based on your experience, and internal-external benchmarks and expertises, which will evolve over time.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]3- What’s the future of Lean ?

Let’s project ourselves over the next decade. Of course, Toyota is pursuing its evolution, and TPS will go on evolving, both in terms of leadership and management, and also by integrating more digitization, in their products, production tools and processes. TPS deployed in every function will lead to a complete flowdown of TPS principles, as we’ve seen on. Over time, Toyota may seem able to stand till at the top and pursue its worldwide leadership, but the ‘Lean’ fashion will progressively go down, like the Six Sigma has been over last years. It will probably take more time since Toyota will still rank first, but people will realize the difficulties and resistances to make it happen in different industries from automotive with a culture such as Toyota.

Lean will have been declined in every type of function of most organizations –product or service, from. Of course, few companies are mastering it, most of them have tried with very limited results, even poor compared to Toyota success. Lean Manufacturing, Lean Development, Lean Startup… And also applied to every specific function such as Lean HR, Lean accounting, as well as any sector such as construction, healthcare… These deployments will be performed on the basic principles, and in few cases unfortunately towards a complete management system.

Six Sigma and Lean Six Sigma will pursue in a slower pace since they’re complementary to Lean by introducing a program and project approach which is helpful in transformation organizations that are not today in Continuous Improvement. Any Lean transformation is performed by the way in a program approach.

World Class Manufacturing and Management, as it hasn’t been marketed today, will remain limited in some expert areas, where it will provide a more complete management system integrating all functions to continuous improvement

TOC –Theory of Constraints, TPM –Total Productive Maintenance and TQM -Total Quality Management will continue on their own evolution.

If Lean wants to evolve, there are two critical axis to follow:

1- Follow with the continuous improvement approach the needs of companies. These needs are well understood and marketed by top strategy consulting companies like Mc Kinsey, BCG… So follow what they’re speaking about, and relate Lean principles to that. Lean cannot do everything, however it’s principles work and can be deployed in many situations.

Today, these leading consulting companies are focusing more on growth, innovation, activating talents, flexible transformations, and developing a complete, ‘simple and efficient’ management system. With customer value, lean startup and Lean leadership and coaching we have efficient ways to answer these needs, even more in the complete management system.

2- Find the way to promote and activate Lean beyond Lean conventional scope. Don’t stay only in operational continuous improvement, on the contrary realize and share that Lean is a great way to improve any activity, operational or managerial. Lean is designed and targeted to be in the habits of every manager, every day. It provides every leader a way to address ones issues and be more efficient. So expand Lean scope: it’s both quality, service, financial performance, management, culture, coaching…[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]As a conclusion, Lean will for sure still be there in 2020 and later, and it will have evolved to combine and integrate other approaches, within and outside Toyota. Realize and capitalize that, as a polymorphic management system, it requires your polymath ability to make it evolve in the context you will apply it to.