In theory... Lean

Emma De Vita's weekly look at management-speak

Despite the name, lean isn't the latest diet fad to be espoused by Marjorie Dawes, Little Britain's weight-loss guru. But it is favoured by another sort of guru, the management theorist, who appreciates the useful analogy. 

A lean person is someone without the wobbly bits that blur our otherwise svelte figures. He is taut with muscle and fleet of foot - a lean, mean fighting machine.

To apply this to business, a lean organisation is one that is completely focused on trimming the fat and cutting the waste at every level to make it super-efficient and quick to respond to its customers' needs. Lean is an all-encompassing type of management thinking - a philosophy that can bring results.

The theory originated half a century ago. W Edwards Deming, an American manufacturing theorist, was persuaded by the US Army's General MacArthur to help resuscitate Japanese industry in the aftermath of the Second World War. The Japanese quickly took to his lean way of thinking: improving quality would reduce expenses and increase productivity and market share.

Car manufacturer Toyota embraced the philosophy, labelling it with the catchy 'the Toyota Production System', which helped the company become the largest car manufacturer in the world. Toyota identified seven areas of concern in which it could cut down on waste: overproduction, inventories, defects, delays, excess transport, excess movement and excess processing. Once these issues had been addressed, the organisation became a slick operation. The philosophy has since gone from strength to strength. Supermarket chain Tesco, for example, is a keen advocate.

But what does lean mean for the voluntary sector? Organisations operating on shoestring budgets can benefit from even the tiniest efficiencies. Ask people at every level how they can trim the fat. Do they really need so many paper forms? Can more be done online? Is there any duplication when communicating with fundraisers? If everyone signs up to the cause, great things can happen.

- Emma De Vita is a senior section editor on Management Today.

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