The Lean Journey: All in a Day’s Work

Since the earliest days (ca. 1995) of the application of Toyota Production System principles being described as “Lean”, this word has been paired with “journey”. Lean is a journey, we are told. It is a trip. A long one. In fact, it is endless, because we can always improve. Endless improvement sounds good. An endless journey sounds exhausting. In fact, without an end, a lean trip is no longer really a journey. Perhaps a rambling. To be precise, a journey is an act of traveling from one place to another place. No need to be precise, we are talking about lean and not six sigma, you may say. Others may point out that the journey of  lean is not a physical one but a process of personal, mental or spiritual development wherein the destination itself can be changing.

How we communicate the process of growing and learning that lean enables is important. When we talk of lean deployments, lean implementations, lean initiatives, or lean programs, we plan, resource, measure and manage the lean growth process as programs, initiatives, implementations or deployments. While the lean journey often includes a series of these things, as a whole it is not a program or a deployment. Treating them as such often results in faltering and backsliding lean efforts long-term. The term “journey” may be better if it brings people the understanding of lean as a long-term commitment to personal and organizational growth and change.

After 20 years of inviting people on the lean journey, perhaps it is time to look for a better term to describe what to expect from lean. Here are a few possibilities.

While there is less of a sense of directionality than a journey, a lean exploration keeps wide open the possibilities for searching, questioning, experimenting, failing and learning.

If the pursuit of lean becomes a long series of adventures and wanderings  filled with notable experiences, struggles, defeats and victories, it may be a lean odyssey. Lean journeys can be epic, but hopefully yours doesn’t feel like Homer’s ten-year attempt to return home after the Trojan War.

If the emphasis for communicating the lean process needs to be on its long-term nature, as well as the “on foot” aspect of going to the gemba, walking the process, and leading visibly, perhaps it is a lean trek.

Too often a lean journey becomes a lean sojourn, or a trip for a brief visit or temporary stay. This one should be avoided.

A lean quest suggests adventure and the promise of glory, searching or pursuing something of physical or spiritual value. This is appealing in many ways, but as with “journey” needs to be paired with the notion that the greater quest is never complete.

For those who are happy with the term “lean journey” it is important to keep one more thing in mind. The word “journey” comes from the Old French word jornee which means “a day’s travel” or “a day’s work”. The process of becoming lean should be described as a long-term process of growth and development, but also as being all in a day’s travel, all in a day’s work. A key principle of lean is doing today’s work today. Another principle is to not overly burden processes or people mentally or physically. The lean journey should be endless, but framed discretely and practically within each day’s work.