Posted by: Knightbird | November 29, 2011

Origin of the Term Lean

I have been asked to describe what Lean is, and I am happy to share he knowledge I have about it. In 1990 James Womack wrote a book called “The Machine That Changed The World”. In the book he called what he was describing Lean Manufacturing. The phrase stuck, and has morphed into “Lean Thinking,” which is also the title of a book written by Jim Womack. We also use the phrases “Lean Administration,” “Lean Government” and “Lean Healthcare.” Lean is essentially a management system similar to the Toyota Production System, which is the subject of “The Machine That Changed The World.”


  1. Womack and Jones give credit to a member of their research team at MIT for coining “lean” – John Krafcik… he is now the President and CEO of Hyundai Motors America, by the way.

    It’s interesting that Krafcik was describing the results of Toyota – better safety, quality, productivity, cost, etc. (better by a wide margin)… “it just seems kind of lean.” But the word has stuck as a description of Toyota’s methods and management system.

    Lean, sadly, is a word that has such negative connotations in every day use.

    I’ve wondered how things would be different if they had called it “effective production” or even “happy production.”

    Who wouldn’t want something called “happy healthcare”? 🙂

  2. Thanks Mark. I learn lots from you and appreciate that.

  3. And vice versa, Patrick!

  4. In the first edition of Workplace Management by Taiichi Ohno, published by Productivity Press, the Japanese expression “genryo seisan” was translated as lean production. Literally genryo means to lose weight, like a boxer does before a fight to make weight. The book is not in front of me but I believe it was published in 1988 or 1989 so it is possible that the research team for the Machine book came across this term.

  5. thank you for the explanation. Somehow it slipped through My emails.
    I agree with Mr. Graban that lean has a negative connotation.
    That is what prompted me to asked for an explanation. I still do not have an understanding of how the word, or why the word is being used. Will I find this in the Mr. Womack’s book?
    I see so many programs running lean, with no people and little resources (my interpretation of the word) that I would like to know how “lean” has become a buzz word for well run organization, and what it entails.

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