Lean has a number of specialist terms. As part of a research project we've put together what we think are the top 30, and shared what we understand them to mean here. Something to add? An edit to suggest? We'd love to hear from you, email us on:


The concept originated within the Toyota Motor Corporation as the Toyota Production System (TPS), for the manufacture of cars as a then radical alternative to traditional method of mass production and batching principles for optimal efficiency, quality, speed and cost. Lean seeks to "design out" overburden (muri), inconsistency (mura), and waste (muda) in operational processes. Therefore, determining the value of any given process and eliminating waste in order to maximise customer value, in other words, “doing more with less” lies at the core of the Lean concept.

Lean thinking is specific to each organisation's underpinning values and beliefs and unique circumstances. However, Womack and Jones (1996) observed five generic elements which were present in all the Lean organisations which they studied. These are called the Five Principles of Lean.

In Higher Education, Lean has been seen as the application of two broad principles taken from "The Toyota Way", a value system developed at Toyota Motor Company, that is: Respect for People and Continuous Improvement.

Also Knows As: Toyota Production System (TPS); Lean Thinking; Continuous Improvement; Kaizen


Lean Tools and Techniques


The A3 Event report is a communication tool following a logical and standard structure. The A3 document tells the story of each event:

  • The purpose of the event
  • Baseline measures – what it is like now
  • Aims – what trying to achieve
  • What was done in the event, tools used
  • What was achieved during the week
  • Next steps – project plan
  • Lessons learned



Affinity Mapping

A process to organise disparate language info by placing it on cards (post-its) and grouping the cards that go together in a creative way. “Header” cards are then used to summarise each group of cards.

Also Knows As: Affinity Grouping


Eight Wastes

The act of identifying and eliminating waste from processes is a large part in Lean activity; The concept of the seven major wastes typically found in mass production was developed by Taichii Ohno of Toyota Motor Company. The definition used here differs from the original Seven Wastes by including "Skills" as the eight waste to consider.

Eight Wastes:

1. Transportation Unnecessary movement of materials, people, information, equipment or paper.

2. Inventory Excess stock, unnecessary files and copies, extra supplies.

3. Motion Unnecessary walking and searching. Things not within reach or readily accessible.

4. Waiting Idle time that causes the workflow to stop, such as waiting for signatures, machines, phone calls.

5. Overprocessing Processing things that don't add value to the customer, such as asking for student details multiple times, excessive checking or duplication of work.

6. Overproduction Producing either too much paperwork / information, or producing it before it is required. This consumes resources faster than necessary.

7. Defects Work that needs to be redone due to errors (whether human or technical) or because incorrect or incomplete information was provided.

8. Skills Not using the full potential of staff by wasting available knowledge, skills and experience.

Also Knows As: Seven Wastes


Fishbone Diagram

Another name for a cause-and-effect diagram, where the "spine" denotes an effect and the "bones" are cause factors. Used for Problem solving, quality improvement.

Figure 1: Cause and Effect Analysis (Fishbone Diagram)

Source: Sustainable Futures (2014)

Also Knows As: ​Ishikawa Diagram


Five S (5S)

5S is a Lean technique that helps to keep workplace clean and tidy by ensuring staff keeps only the items that are needed to perform their tasks. The 5S stands for:

1. Sort: clear out, clean up

2. Set in order: clean and check, arrange

3. Shine: configure, neatness

4. Standardise: conformity, discipline

5. Sustain: custom and practice, ongoing improvement

Some organisations also include a 6th S - Safety

Also Knows As: 6S, Sort and Shine


Five Why's

​The practice of asking "why" five times whenever a problem is encountered; repeated questioning helps identify the root cause of a problem so that effective countermeasures can be developed and implemented. Used for problem solving and determining root causes.


PDCA Cycle

​Plan-Do-Check (Study)-Act. An iterative four-step problem-solving process typically used in quality control. It is also known as the Deming Wheel or Shewhart Cycle. Used in problem solving.

Also Knows As: P.D.S.A. Cycle; Deming Wheel


Process Map

​A visual representation of the sequential flow of a process. Used as a tool in problem solving, this technique makes opportunities for improvement apparent.

Also Knows As: Current State Map (As-Is); Future State Map (To-Be)


Red Tagging

​Labelling unneeded items for removal from an office area during a 5S exercise.

Red tags are attached to unneeded equipment, stationary, etc. Tagged items are placed in a holding area where they are evaluated for other uses within a department or University. Those with no alternative uses are discarded. Red tagging helps achieve the first S of the Five S exercise, which calls for separating needed from unneeded items.


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​To generate and quickly try ideas, or models of ideas, rather than simply discuss them, as in brainstorming.


Value Stream

​​The specific activities required to design, order, and provide a specific service (product).


Value Stream Mapping

​Identification of all the specific activities occurring along a value stream for a service (product).

Also Knows As: VSM


Visual Management

​​Signals and other forms of visual information used to simplify the workplace and make it easy to recognise abnormalities.

Visual Management is very closely linked with Leader Standard Work management practice


Voice of the Customer (VOC)

The desires and expectations of the customer, which are of primary importance in the development of new products, services, and the daily conduct of the business. For listening to and acting on customer feedback.

Also Knows As: VOC


Lean Production Terms

Batch and Queue

The mass-production practice of making large lots of a part then sending the batch to wait in the queue before the next operation in the production process. Contrast with single-piece flow.

In the HE setting Batch & Queue practice can be found, for instance, in the Matriculation process, where a large number of students come to officially register at the University at one point in time.


Cycle Time

T​he time required for completing one step of a process.


Roles within Lean

Change Agent

The leader of a lean conversion who has the willpower and drive to initiate fundamental change and make it stick.

The change agent—who often comes from outside the organization —doesn’t need detailed lean knowledge at the beginning of the conversion. The knowledge can come from a lean expert, but the change agent absolutely needs the will to see that the knowledge is applied and becomes the new way of working.


Japanese Terminology


From the Japanese for paper latern, used as a signal, to indicate where a problem occurs, as a start to root case analysis (see:"Five Why's"). Is applied beyond manufacturing, for example staff in Amazon are able to pull any item in real time from their website where there has been three defects by using their "andon code" which triggers analysis of the issue.

For example, here in Edinburgh Napier University when there is an issue in an exam room (a student requires to use the toilet, for example), they hang a red card over the door handle of the room, to indicate that a second invigilator, who is regularly patrolling, should attend and give assistance.

Also Knows As: Andon Cord; Andon Board



A Japanese Lean term, meaning "The Real Place" often referred to as where the value is created. In Universities could be the exam room, the lecture theatre, or the offices where the activity is undertaken.​

Also Knows As: MBWA, Management By Walking Around, Genba


Genchi Genbutsu

The Toyota practice of thoroughly understanding a condition by confirming information or data through personal observation at the source of the condition. In Japanese, genchi genbutsu essentially means “go and see” but translates directly as “actual place and actual thing.”


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Radical, revolutionary improvement of a process to quickly create more value for a customer with less waste.

One example would be radically changing the University enrolment procedure from twice yearly to continuous enrolment (similarly to the Open University), thus allowing students to join any given course at the time of their preference. Also called breakthrough kaizen, in comparison with more gradual, step-by-step kaizen.

Also Knows As: Kakushin


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A Japanese term meaning "change for the better". Applied to business organisations, it implies continuing improvement involving everyone. It is used to mean 'continuous improvement' and is synonymous with "lean".

There are two levels of kaizen (Rother and Shook 1999, p. 8):

1. System or flow kaizen focusing on the overall value stream.

This is kaizen that required an input from top management, as the required are likely to span across many functional areas.

2. Process kaizen focusing on individual processes.

This is kaizen for work teams and team leaders.

Value-stream mapping is an excellent tool for identifying an entire value stream and determining where flow and process kaizen are appropriate.

Also Knows As: Continuous Improvement (CI)



The process of gaining acceptance and preapproval for a proposal by evaluating first the idea and then the plan with management and stakeholders to get input, anticipate resistance, and align the proposed change with other perspectives and priorities in the organization.

Formal approval comes in a meeting to sign off on the final version of the proposal. The term literally means “preparing the ground for planting” in Japanese.


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"Big Room" taken to mean a large meeting room or space dedicated to project management.​

Also Knows As: War Room


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Designing a process or system so that it is easy to get correct and hard to get wrong, error proofing. Examples include the colours on computer cables, or how a plug can only enter the socket one way around.​

Also Knows As: Error-proofing


Waste (Muda)

​A traditional Japanese term for activity that is wasteful and doesn't add value or is unproductive. Removing waste is an effective way to improve quality, increase effectiveness and profitability.

Also Knows As: Muda


Lean Principles

The Five Principles of Lean Thinking

​A five-step thought process proposed by Womack and Jones in 1996 to guide managers through a Lean transformation. The five principles are:

  1. Specify value from the standpoint of the end customer by product family.
  2. Identify all the steps in the value stream for each product family, eliminating whenever possible those steps that do not create value.
  3. Make the value-creating steps occur in tight sequence so the product will flow smoothly toward the customer.
  4. As flow is introduced, let customers pull value from the next upstream activity.
  5. As value is specified, value streams are identified, wasted steps are removed, and flow and pull are introduced, repeat this process again and continue it until a state of perfection is reached in which perfect value is created with no waste.

In 2007, Womack and Jones simplified the five steps to these—Purpose, Process, People.

Also Knows As: Lean Thinking



​​When a process provides pure value, as defined by the customer, with no waste of any sort.


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Six Sigma

Six Sigma is a powerful business improvement strategy. Originally developed by Motorola, adopted by companies who are recognised leaders in World-Class Quality GE, LG, Kodak to name a few.

It is well known for its use of statistical tools (pareto/distribution charts) and the Six Sigma measure of process capability (equivalent to defect rate of 3.4 parts per million(ppm) - or 99.99966% “good”). It seeks to identify and eliminate causes of errors or defects or failures in business processes by focusing on outputs that are critical to customers.

A more practical definition is "data driven problem solving" and "fact based decision making - an integrated part of a management system."

DMAIC is the most well-known continuous improvement methodology used in Six Sigma, providing structured approach to solving problems. The approach has 5 phases i.e. Define, Measure, Analyse, Improve and Control (DMAIC).

Professor Antony, director of the Centre for Research in Six Sigma and Process Excellence (CRISSPE), published a number of papers on Lean and Six Sigma concepts in the HE context.

Also Knows As: