Articles: INNOVATION is the New LEAN

John Shook’s take on Innovation as the new Lean

… Remember these five principles of Lean?

  1. Ensure the customer sees value in everything you do
  2. Map the Value stream
  3. Eliminate all steps customers won’t pay for
  4. Accelerate throughput flow to speed value stream flow that enables customers to pull only what they need when they need it
  5. Enable continuous improvement to become a KATA.

It’s been almost three decades since Lean was identified, and we are now building vehicles to take earthlings to mars as we continue to accelerate technology’s involvement. We cannot, and will not, let up!But the ‘next big thing’ is likely to be seeing Innovation becoming mainstream. Our future competitiveness in the global marketplace will depend upon it.  And if you need an up-to-date refresher on how to put Lean to work, check out the new  The Lean StrategyUsing Lean to Create Competitive Advantage, Unleash Innovation, and Deliver Sustainable Growth by – Jones; Balle; Chaize; and Fiume.  What follows is John’s perspective on innovation and its link to Lean.

Over the last 28 years, John Shook, Dan Jones, Jim Womack and, now so many others, have equipped us with the thinking, the monthly newsletters, the experiences and conferences around the world with the tools to change what we do, and how we do it.  The following is John Shook’s view on Innovation as the new Lean, from a man who just keeps contributing.

“Dear Colleagues in Lean,

Innovation is a popular – and important – concept. So, here are three questions.  1)  What is it?  2)  What does lean thinking have to say about it?  3)   So what?

I did some deep-diving recently into this thing we call innovation. It’s interesting how there’s not much in the way of an accepted definition. So, consolidating a lot of stuff from different sources (you’re welcome), running it all through my own filter (apologies!), here’s a stab:  An innovation is anything that is novel and valuable. Novel means new. Especially a new idea or method or something that has a “process” piece to it. Valuable – the link here with lean thinking is clear – means that someone, anyone, perceives the new thing/method/process as having value. Value from the perceiver’s perspective.


What does lean thinking have to say about innovation? First, I think the word/concept gets overused. Does new or novel mean better? There’s somehow the perception that “innovation” is further up the food chain, higher up the evolutionary scale than lowly “improvement.” Ever hear this: “Oh, that’s a nice incremental improvement, but what we need is innovation!” Radical innovation. Disruption innovation. Well, sure. We want to be ahead of the curve. To set the trend like a Henry Ford or Steve Jobs.

But while an innovation by definition has “value,” an improvement by definition means the new way is better than the old. From that standpoint, improvement is underrated; it could use an image makeover.

And, I bet you agree, it has become all too common to draw too deep a distinction between the two. Almost all innovations are actually improvements on things or ideas that already existed. Not much new under the sun. No? What’s under the sun are, literally, the four forces of nature. Just four.

Branford Marsalis (the less famous brother), in reference to the tremendous creativity and innovation that is jazz, observes, “Everything you read about jazz is: ‘Is it new? Is it innovative?’ I mean, man, there’s 12 f-ing notes. What’s going to be new? You honestly think you’re going to play something that hasn’t been played already?” Very interesting. Of course, tremendous creativity comes from combinations and the very constraints imposed by the “12 f-ing notes.” Still, Coltrane, Miles, Gershwin – were all just playing around with the same 12 notes. The universe has four forms of energy.

Lean Thinking

Lean thinking itself was an innovation (new and valuable) and an improvement over what preceded it (and what still exists in so many places) that contains within itself the means of further innovation and improvement. Masaaki Imai, to whom we owe much, gave us this framework about 30 years ago:
Imai’s framework is useful in thinking about types of problem solving (though we should add one more, a topic for next time!). Lean thinking suggests, however, that we be careful to not draw the lines between them – sustain + Kaizen + innovation – too harshly.

There’s much overlap, with one bleeding into the other. As lean thinking is itself an innovation, within it are specific methods for innovating (as there are for kaizen and sustainability, as well) such as set-based innovation, Lean Startup methods, A3 and KATA techniques, and most importantly the fundamental approach of engaging everyone in the act of innovating in their own work. Innovation is not the purview only of a chosen few to be applied in only special situations.

So What?

It’s taking that thought further that highlights the deepest contribution of lean thinking – the role of innovation in the work. We think of the iPhone as a tremendous innovation, like the internet, the automobile and now autonomous driving. But, the actualization of each of these, the underappreciated enabler that propelled them to change our lives was, first of all, the many technical innovations that preceded them (no iPhone without iPod, without Macintosh, without Apple II…). And secondly, the innovation in the work to be done entailed in bringing them to life. Here’s an animation that tries to tell that story. I’ll be curious to hear what you think.”  (Click HERE to view Innovation in the Work animation)

John Shook is now Senior Advisor and Executive Chairman of the Lean Enterprise Institute Inc.   Be sure to check out the video above, and to take time to check out the LEI resources site  –  it will be well worth your time considering the vast array of videos, documentation, and knowledge on all aspects of Lean.