Lean methods and tools are gaining in popularity and are being applied in many and varied industries. More and more research, case studies and hard business results are showing the value that a lean approach can bring.

However, a lot of the terminology and approaches promise quick fixes and silver bullets and, consequently, are hard not to dismiss as the latest management fad.

And, there is so much terminology – agile, Six Sigma, lean startup, design thinking, kanban, value stream mapping, scrum, sprints, black belts and so on.

Can all of this make sense? And, what are the connections between all these various approaches?

The key to understanding this myriad is to start distinguishing tools, methods and processes and to recognise that all of these different aspects can be based on a single philosophy of Lean.

Despite all the management and consultant friendly speak, Lean can be of value to you and to the way you work.

Business strategy – the start and end of it all

Lean is a way of doing things. However, before an organisation decides how it wants to go about its business, it must be very clear on what its business actually is?

What is the purpose of the organisation? You would be surprised at the amount of organisations that don’t have a clear and concise answer to that question.

And, the challenge after getting that answer from the leadership of the organsiation is to see if you get the same answer from the workers of the organisation. Is there consistent understanding of the purpose of the organisation throughout the organisation?

It is amazing the amount of organisations that I meet whose primary purpose is to get to next week. Keep doing what we’re doing as its what got us here in the first place.

So, what is it that the organisation spends its resources to achieve? What value does the organisation offer to its customers? A business strategy defines the ‘what’ for the company.

If an organisation doesn’t have clarity on this front, it doesn’t matter if it is lean, agile, run in the style of the Trump White House or the old school FAI – it is not going to succeed.

Peter Drucker said it well when he stated that 'There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all'.

Or, as said by another management guru – the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland – 'if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will do'.

Operational strategy – the how

Once an organisation is clear on its business strategy, i.e. ‘what’ it wants to do, it must then decide on ‘how’ it is going to achieve this.

An operational strategy defines the ‘how’. An operational strategy is put in place to realise the business strategy. It defines how value will be produced.

Lean is one way to do things – lean is an operational strategy.

Traditional operational strategies focus on what we can call ‘resource efficiency’, that is, getting the most out of the available resources. Think of your classic project manager who is focused on keeping everyone busy, ensuring that all the assets are sweated.

A lean operational strategy, instead, focuses on the flow of value to the customer. How do you get your value proposition the customer as quickly and as efficiently as possible.

We call this a focus on ‘flow efficiency’.

Methods such as Six Sigma and agile are popular lean methods and tools focused on flow of value.

A Lean operational strategy can be applied in manufacturing or services, in small or large businesses and is applicable for anybody who wants to continually improve the way they do business.

Some key aspects of lean operational strategy

Once an organisation decides to focus on the flow of value rather than keeping resources busy, their priorities and techniques must change.

For example, focusing on flow requires project management to focus on ensuring the process flow is efficiently delivering value at all times.

Process flows have their own mathematical laws which must be considered. For example, these laws tells us that a focus on keeping resources busy can result in superfluous work, that is work that is not focused on delivering value to the customer. A lean approach always looks to focus on value adding work for the customer.

But one of the primary considerations of process flows is that of variation. Be that variation of supply, i.e. our people, or variation of demand, i.e. the customer’s changing needs.

Variation is accepted as being the heart of any process flow and, as such, a Lean operational strategy can be viewed as constantly looking for new ways to deal with variation in the flow of value to the customer.


As a lean approach focuses on variation, it cannot be based upon a set of strict rules which apply in all situations.

Instead, a lean approach must be based on ‘principles’ which inform all decisions on all levels.

These lean principles are:

  • Transparency and visualisation
  • Empowered teams
  • Continuous learning
  • Short feedback loops

Transparency and visualisation

A Lean operational strategy focuses on the flow of value to the customer.

To improve the flow of value to your customer, you must be able to visualise this flow – you must be able to see it.

If an organisation can have clarity with regard to its information, the focus can then be on solving actual issues, not on creating reports and providing subjective opinions.

Informational transparency is supported by popular and effective methods and tools such as kanban boards, white boards, Jira backlogs etc.

Organisation transparency can be driven by value stream mapping and organisation level dashboards.

To focus on the efficient flow of value you must be able to see the flow and fix it when it needs fixing.

Empowered teams

A lean operational strategy requires that your organisation is flexible and adaptive to an ever-changing environment.

Empowered teams are best placed to provide this flexibility. It is they who do the work of the organisation, it is they who know best.

To be flexible and adaptive, they must be empowered to make immediate decisions to ensure they can deliver the value that the customer wants.

However, accepting that empowered teams must be at the centre of an organisation focused on an efficient flow of value has a lot of consequences. What is the role of the leader? What organisation structures make most sense? What decision models should be applied? What do your reward schemes look like?

Empowered teams are at the centre of a lean strategy and have fundamental impacts.

Continuous learning

A lean operational strategy is a journey, not a destination. There is no point at which we are ‘done’.

Due to the nature of variation of supply and demand, there will always be a better way to do things. There is no best way to operate. This is a radical departure from previous approaches whereby it was deemed that there was ‘one best way’, one best process and this was what the focus of the organisation was on, i.e. abiding by the stone tablets of ‘how things are done around here’.

A lean operational strategy relies on frontline people to see the performance improvement opportunities and to identify issues to be resolved. There is always room for improvement – both small and large.

A lean organisation must be continuously learning to deal with continuous change.


A lean operational strategy requires the availability and provision of short feedback loops. Feedback is required if an organisation is to know it is delivering the value that its customer needs.

Consequently, direct customer feedback is the most important type of feedback. Variation of demand is constant, customers’ needs will develop and evolve. The service that is perfect today may not be perfect tomorrow. We need to interact with the customer at regular intervals to get continuous feedback.

Very simply, the staff of a lean organisation must be close to the customer to ensure that they are delivering what the customer values.


An approach based on these four lean principles allows your organisation to adapt to internal and external variation that is a constant in our fast changing environments.

This continuously adapting approach to the flow of value to your customer, allows your organisation to deliver on its business strategy and maintain success.

Lean is an operational strategy which focuses not on resource efficiency, but on the flow of value to your customer.

Author: Michael Murtagh is a Senior Change Leader in leading telecommunications multinational LM Ericsson. He is based in Stockholm and operates from the central operations office. He is currently working in the Digitalization Transformation program, focusing on the implementation of the Lean transformation across the full company. He was previously a member of the Irish management team and was responsible for the Ericsson Ireland transition from a Waterfall based project management approach to a Lean/Agile mindset. He has developed an accredited course in Lean Financial Services which is currently offered by the Irish Institute of Bankers. He also works with Enterprise Ireland, delivering executive level courses on Operational Excellence and Lean/Agile for SMEs. He delivers an MBA course in Slovenia on Advanced Project Management.