In 1990, James Womack and his colleagues wrote The Machine That Changed the World, a best-selling book about Toyota’s “secret weapon” — the lean manufacturing system. I define lean manufacturing — often referred to as “lean” — as “the relentless pursuit of creating value by strategically eliminating waste.”

Lean is about creating value for the customer, whether it’s through a reduction in lead time, an increase in quality or an increase in flexibility. If a company does those things well, the customer is going to save money.

By continuing to refine practices and procedures, lean aims to produce more goods faster while using fewer resources, such as less factory space, fewer worker movements and fewer assembly steps.

Although lean principles originated in the business arena, they can be readily applied to everyday scenarios in our lives to improve the way we operate. On a daily basis, lean can improve efficiency at the supermarket, at the bar, in school — even at Disney World.

Here are five examples of lean concepts at work:

  • At the Supermarket: The self-checkout processes at supermarkets varies and offers a simple lesson in lean. In the self-checkout lane at one supermarket, I scan an item and then place it on a conveyor belt, which carries it toward a bagging location. Then I scan the next item, put it on the belt and repeat the process. After paying, I walk to the end of the checking area and must handle each item a second time while I place it in a bag. The customer behind me in line has to wait until I am finished. This is an example of over-processing — each item is handled twice. Additionally, there is extra inventory of scanned items that aren’t yet bagged. At a different grocery, I scan the item and put it immediately into a bag, which is located next to the scanner. I scan and bag, scan and bag. I pay, take my bags and leave. Look what happens to my throughput time. This is a great example of single-piece flow. I don’t have batch processing here, and I don’t have inventory waiting around. I handle each item only once, which makes the process faster for me — and for the person behind me.
  • At the Bar: While at a bar drinking with my friends, I wonder about when I should order my next beer. Do I order the next one when my glass is full, empty or somewhere in the middle? This is a question of inventory. To optimize the use of inventory, I must take into account variability; it depends on how busy the bar is, the lead time to get the next beer and how thirsty I am. In this case, I need to have some inventory, because if there’s no inventory, there’s no safety stock, and I might have to wait for the next beer. But if I order too soon and have too much inventory, I’ll end up with warm, flat beer. I must balance a shortage cost (thirst) versus a holding cost (warm beer) to figure out how much inventory to have on hand and when to order more. This is a practical example of inventory management.
  • In Preschool: As they say, everything I learned about 5S (sort, simplify, shine, standardize, sustain – loosely translated from the Japanese), I learned in preschool. Objects are color-coded. There’s a place for everything. Kids too young to read can tell where toys belong from photographs on the bins. This is smart, lean thinking in action.
  • At Disney World: One of the most popular rides at Disney World is Dumbo the Flying Elephant. Dumbo is a classic example of the batch process. Riders wait in a long line for the people who just finished to egress, before they can board. Much of the wait time is due to people getting off and on the ride. This process was improved with the Splash Mountain ride. People board from one side of the boat and then exit from the other side at the end. The ultimate ride, though — with respect to flow — is Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin. Riders board a little spaceship from a moving sidewalk that moves at the same speed as the spaceships, which flow continuously. Riders step off before they even reach the point where the next group boards, so there is very little setup time.
  • At a Las Vegas Casino: The blackjack table offers a great example of setup reduction. There used to be a “shoe” that held the cards. When the dealer reached a certain point in the stack, an inserted colored card signaled it was time to shuffle. Everyone waited while the dealer shuffled. Now the cards are constantly shuffled by automatic shufflers, so setup time has been essentially removed. Dealers can get more hands played. The number of hands played per hour has increased — which is bad for me but great for the casino!

These are several examples of how lean approaches can be applied in real life to save and optimize time and money. It streamlines processes and makes life more efficient, and that’s why it works for businesses and individuals.

About the Expert

Elliott N. Weiss

Oliver Wight Professor of Business Administration

Weiss is a top authority in many aspects of manufacturing, including inventory control, manufacturing planning and scheduling, manufacturing project management, materials management, service industry operations, total productive maintenance and lean systems.

Weiss is the author of numerous articles in the areas of production management and operations research and has extensive consulting experience for both manufacturing and service companies in the areas of production scheduling, workflow management, logistics, lean conversions and total productive maintenance.

B.S., B.A., MBA, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania