Lean is for manufacturing companies.......isn’t it??


The word Lean was used by James Womack to describe what was found in a study of automotive companies in 1989. Despite the fact that Womack has since gone on to outline Lean practices in non-manufacturing sectors, the initial link with production remains till this day.

Ask 10 people what they mean by the term Lean and you will most likely get 10 different answers. Some view Lean as a relentless cutting of costs and understandably this view attracts few willing participants.

I prefer to think of Lean as described by Deming back in the 1950s. Deming stated: “If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, then you don’t know what you are doing”.

This may be a little harsh and could be re-phrased “If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, then each time it is done, it may be done differently. It is also likely that each customer may have a different experience of your process”.

When we began delivering the Lean programme on behalf of ManagementWorks, we expected that this view of Lean and the application of process thinking would add value to service businesses in the Irish SME sector. What has happened in some businesses is little short of amazing in a short space of time.

Some successes include:

- reduction in administration time for the financial month end process
- standardization of quotation process
- radical reduction of energy spend
- streamlined purchasing process
- standardised legal processes

To see staff successfully apply lean principles in a retail pharmacy chain, a leasing business, a media group, an administration office, a high street retailer and even a legal practice dispels the myth that Lean is only for manufacturing staff.

Our belief is that the expertise to develop business processes already exists in each business – it lies with those that deliver the processes every day. Lean thinking provides a structure to express what is done as a process and a set of principles and tools to improve that process. This empowers the employees in organisations to express potential improvements in a blame-free and data-based learning environment.

Lean is a methodology to develop staff and promote a culture of problem-solving and continuous improvement in any business.


Steve Halpin is Managing Director of ETAC Solutions - a specialist provider of training, expertise and software solutions in all matters related to Lean and Six Sigma Business Improvement Programmes. ETAC Solutions is a provider to ManagementWorks on our Lean Business programme.