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The Lean Minimalist approach to keeping improvements simple


It’s easy to over complicate the solution to a problem. Often, the problem itself is so frustrating that any solution looks good on the surface. Even a smart, experienced improvement team can inadvertently get sidetracked into creating a solution that is more complicated than the fall-out from the problem they were trying to solve.

While lean thinking in itself is a minimalist approach to manufacturing, the huge literature and consulting industry that has sprung out of the philosophy of the Toyota Production System is anything but. A tempting solution for businesses today is to take what appears to be an ‘out of the box’ lean solution or program and apply it to their own processes in the assumption that one size fits all.

Unfortunately, lean transformation is more ‘bespoke’ than ‘off the shelf’ when it comes to lean tools. Solutions come from a deep understanding of the issues and the creative minds of the improvement team rather than from a textbook or a software package.

Minimalism has a strong foundation in the belief that only things that add value to an individual are worth retaining. If a thing or activity is no longer adding value a minimalist will strongly consider removing it. Applying a minimalist approach to lean problem solving can avoid creating inadvertent process clutter and will go a long way to developing the leanest solutions possible.

Here are a three tips for avoiding over-complicated solutions and systems when developing process improvements.

1. Really understand the problem you are trying to solve

It doesn’t really matter what problem solving / root cause analysis tool you use to get to the bottom of the issue as long as you spend some time really understanding the problem.

Questions like: ‘Why don’t we like things the way they are?’ and ‘What’s so bad about the way we do it now?’ are really useful for getting down into the nitty gritty. I also like to ask ‘What would be the problem with keeping things the way they are now?’ This question usually generates a whole lot of reasons why things have to change, which inevitably guides the development of solutions later.

There is also no substitute for going into the actual process itself to really witness and experience first hand why something is an issue.

Asking ‘Why?’ multiple times is also useful to get past the surface level issues and really get down into the root cause.

2. Keep the solution simple

Over time, I have heard my own team starting to repeat a number of phrases when developing solutions. It’s common to hear “That’s too complicated, there must be a simpler way?” or “This needs to almost manage itself” or “If we put that in place it will fall over, it needs to be bulletproof”

What is happening is that a bunch of really busy, highly organised people with a lot to do have a desire to create solutions that have the lowest impact possible on their already high administrative load. They have identified that managing complex systems does not really add value to their daily processes so they naturally try to develop minimalist management systems for their lean improvements. They forgo high maintenance Kanban card systems for super basic visually managed processes instead. They change flow paths to reduce the management required to get the parts in the right place. They shy away from anything that requires complex training, data entry or high skill levels to manage and look for something more basic.

Solutions need to follow the rule of “nothing more that what is necessary” to achieve the requirement metrics of Quality Cost Delivery Safety and Morale. Anything more than that is waste. The reality is that our ideal solution will reduce the amount of non value adding activities in the process without adding any. This idea should also be applied to any Check or Adjust processes that are required due to the improvement.

3. Aim for perfection and work backwards from there.

When it comes to creating solutions to problems always keep your eye on the prize. A future state visualization is helpful to make sure everyone can see and agrees on what perfection might look like. Once everyone can see the end goal they will naturally develop solutions as close to that goal as possible. If perfection can’t be achieved, then a step back can be taken.

If the process is approached from a different angle, where developing a solution is the priority, the team is more likely to simply latch on to the first viable option and run with it. It is always helpful to ask, “How close does this solution get us to the goal of perfection?”

Of course, perfection isn’t always achievable. Sometimes, we do have to just take the best solution possible at the time. Even in these cases holding onto the goal of the perfect solution will drive further improvement activities on the process and highlight obstacles that have to be overcome to achieve it.


By using a more minimalist approach, team members will be more likely to consider how the solution adds value to the process and also at a team level. They will take the higher level view of how the solution fits into the constant search for perfection and ultimately generate solutions that are simpler, leaner and better for everyone in the team.

1 Comment »

  1. Excellent point – solutions for solutions sake is often were I end up, as anything is often better than we are. But you’re right, quite often its just a different way to solve it, not necessarily lean or minimalist. I’ll use those questions when reviewing processes from now on.


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