Lean management: the pros, cons, and everything in-between

Lean management: the pros, cons, and everything in-between

Waste is never a good thing — whether that’s resources, time, or money — and that’s exactly what Lean management is about: creating a culture that is as efficient as possible.

Toyota originally developed the Lean methodology back in the ‘80s to minimize waste on their production line. Needless to say, it worked for them and since then, a huge range of industries have adopted it, from marketing and manufacturing to design, management, and beyond.

If you want to work more effectively with your team, then Lean could be your new favorite tool. Read on to find out exactly what this popular methodology involves.

What are the main principles of Lean?

Lean management is shaped around five core principles, as described by the Lean Management Institute.

1. Identify your value. Always satisfy your customers’ needs by only providing services that add value. Any activity that doesn’t add value is considered waste.

2. Map the value stream. Analyze your workflow from start to finish, including all the activities of everyone on your team (and potentially beyond). Once you’ve done this, you’ll be able to see which activities add value, and which don’t.

TIP: Use a process map to help you visualize how everyone’s different tasks link up to each other (aka their ‘dependencies’).

3. Create flow. Refine and streamline your workflow, highlighting things like bottlenecks or unnecessary approval stages that could slow things down. Remember: if it doesn’t add value (or causes problems), then get rid of it.

4. Establish pull. This is a way of working that requires people to ‘pull’ jobs to work on when there’s demand, and only when there’s demand.

To use a real-life example, say you’re working behind a bar. You’d pull a drink for someone when they step up and order one — you wouldn’t pour beers in advance when the bar is empty. It’s the same for Lean working.

5. Seek perfection. Lean isn’t something that has an endpoint; it’s about continuous improvement. Tasks and workforces change, which is why it’s important to revisit and refine the workflow. And even if nothing’s changed, assess anyway — there’s almost always room for improvement.

What are the benefits of Lean management?

Lean principles are designed to continually improve productivity. It’s popular because, when done properly, it works. Here are some of the benefits:

  • Less waste. Continually refining your workflow means you can iron out productivity-sapping issues and tasks that don’t add anything.
  • More focus. By cutting out activities that don’t add value, your team can apply more focus to those that do.
  • Better motivation. When employees are able to focus on meaningful and impactful work, rather than valueless busywork, they have a greater sense of purpose.
  • A smarter way of working. Using the pull system means the team will only work on tasks when there’s demand. They can spend any spare time on either preparation or training.
  • More value for the customer. By cutting out tasks that don’t add value, you’ll be able to commit more time to those that do, ensuring a higher-quality product.

Are there any disadvantages to Lean management?

As with all things, there are downsides. Although, as will all downsides, there are steps you can take to minimize the chance of occurrence. Here are the main things to look out for:

  • Lack of time. Lean requires some planning and time upfront: you’ll need to take a deep dive into your current workflow and team activities, which could include tracking things over a period of time (if you’re not already), as well as talking to team members and heads of other teams.You’ll also need to encourage your team to meet regularly (many Lean teams hold a daily standup) to discuss the work that’s been completed, what needs to be done, and any problems that could get in the way.
  • A lack of strategy. Some organizations get so focused on Lean tactics that they lose sight of the bigger picture. One way to get around this is to create a project charter for each project, as well as an overall mission statement.
  • Not enough buy-in. Lean is considered a radical way of working that requires complete buy-in from teams. They’ll need to work independently without too much direction, which might not work if your team is inexperienced. Implementing a new strategy can also cause stress, especially if it’s a particularly results-oriented methodology — which Lean is. Brush up on your organizational communication skills so you can effectively tell everyone why they are shifting to this way of working. You may also need to invest in training to get less experienced (or resistant) workers up to speed.
  • Cutting things too fine. Lean follows a ‘pull’ style of working which means work is delivered as needed, and not preemptively. However, if there’s a bottleneck or your resources are low (for example, someone’s off sick), then delays can start adding up quickly. Having a contingency plan in place can help provide leeway, while smart planning using project management software will help you track tasks in real-time, helping you plan ahead.

Final thoughts

Lean’s enduring popularity is a testament to its potential. As with all management methodologies though, there are pros and cons — but being aware of the potential pitfalls is your best line of defense. Here are three things to keep in mind:

  1. Understand the potential problems, and take steps towards mitigating these.
  2. Always keep your overarching company goal in mind.
  3. Track and monitor progress as you go, both through project management software and daily team standups.

If you use these three points as your guiding star, you’ll be able to build an efficient project that evolves and improves each day. You’ll also have a team that’s working to their greatest potential.

Georgina Guthrie Georgina is a displaced Brit currently working in France as a freelance copywriter. Before moving to sunnier climates, she worked as a B2B agency writer in Bristol, England, which is also where she was born. In her spare time, she enjoys old films and cooking (badly).