Manufacturing is where the lean movement originated from. For their MIT research in the late 1980s (which resulted in the 1990 seminal book The Machine the Changed the World), Jim Womack and Dan Jones identified a set of principles and techniques that made Japanese carmakers far more productive than their Western competitors.
The superiority of the Toyota Production System is now a recognized fact (Toyota has been profitable every year but one, for half a century), which means that today most manufacturing organizations around the world practice lean manufacturing thinking to some extent. The prevalence of this alternative way of thinking and managing in the manufacturing sector often generates confusion in other industries, in which people’s first reaction to improvement attempts is the now proverbial “We don’t make cars. Lean is a manufacturing thing.”
When applied to manufacturing, lean tools like heijunka, SMED or Kanban cards allow for the optimization of production processes and the systematic elimination of waste (in its three incarnations of muda, muri and mura – respectively, non-value-adding work, overburden and unevenness). These happen by implementing the fundamental lean principles of pull and flow. However, it has now been proved that the principles characterizing lean manufacturing are universally applicable. They work in any sector and they apply to any kind of work – even though at times they require some adjustment.