It is always good to go back to the source. For most of the last ten years, I have been part of a team exploring the application of lean thinking to healthcare. But I like to think of myself as a bit of a scholar, and whenever I explore a topic I try to search out its origins.

Where else to go when thinking about lean tools than Taiichi Ohno himself, and his Toyota Production system, Beyond Large Scale Production. This wonderful short book contains many of the major ideas that make up lean thinking. My reading of Ohno’s central message is that Toyota sought a competitive advantage by reducing inventory. Ohno knew he could not compete with American mass producers on economies of scale. But he could minimise the resources tied up in inventory.

His key tool for climbing the Everest of zero inventory was the kanban. A kanban is a signal from a later step to an earlier step to produce a specified volume of goods for a specific destination. Ohno sought to produce cars at the rhythm of the market, rather than simply at the convenience of the producer. He needed a production signalling devise that worked its way back from customer demand, back through each step in the production process, ensuring that what was made was only what was needed, when it was needed.

A kanban is a tool that embeds a concept. Lean tools that work embed lean concepts. In that way, they find application in many different settings. They teach you about lean as you use them. Kanbans teach you about pull, and making only what your customer, the person who uses what you make, needs and wants. 5S teaches you about work organisation and respecting your work place and your co-workers. Visual management teaches you about the environment telling you what to do next, rather than a supervisor using a command and control approach. They always need adapting to your own circumstance, but that does not matter, because the concepts remain.

Recently, I was running a workshop where a lean facilitator told the following story. She had been working with a group of hospital wards to implement patient journey boards, visual management systems that improve co-ordination between the many different groups involved in patient care in hospitals. A social worker was very resistant, saying she did not approve of “this industry stuff.” The facilitator persevered, and a few weeks later, the social worker came up and gave the facilitator a hug, saying, “I just wanted to thank you for the journey board. I can’t tell you how much time it saves me looking for paperwork, and how much better my day has become because I can spend more time looking after patients, not chasing up the other staff.”

Lean tools will always be important because they embody the basic concepts that give lean its distinctive character.