Tom Pyzdek  |  08/01/2008

Total Lean

Where does our responsibility for producing a product or service end?

The following personal stories concern vehicles produced by the automaker that invented lean and is world-famous for its efficient manufacturing operations:

My old SUV’s bright headlights don’t work. When I hit the switch for the brights, the headlights turn off completely. This will cost me $400 to fix because it requires replacing an entire steering wheel subassembly.

My wife’s car needs a filter replaced; it’s routine maintenance. It will cost several hundred dollars because it requires extensive disassembly to get to the filter, which has to be done by going through the glove compartment.

I once lost the key to my car. It was one of those keys with security features, and it opened the doors and trunk. It cost me nearly $300 to replace the key. (This was four years ago, when the dollar was still worth something.) I was told that if I lost my remaining key, it would cost me $3,000 to get a new key because the car’s computer security hardware would need to be replaced. As you might imagine, this would require extensive disassembly.

Lately I’ve been driving my two-seater sports car a lot because it gets 35-38 mpg. However, as I write this it has been in the shop for 31 days and counting. My mechanic, a pleasant fellow named Bob, says this car is “very hard to work on.” It’s not a good sign to know your auto mechanic on a first-name basis. Bob is trying to find out why the car turns itself off from time to time as I drive down the road, just like a computer crash. I have to “reboot” the car by turning it off and on again. (There is no “control-alt-delete” option.) This doesn’t always work and it’s kind of exciting if the car decides to stall in the middle of a busy intersection. The car is five years old and this has been happening, literally, since day one. It first stalled on my way home from the dealer.


I think that in this company’s passion to make its internal systems super-efficient, it may have forgotten someone: me, the customer. When it comes to maintenance and repair (i.e., ownership), these cars are anything but lean.

Perhaps we need a new definition of lean, one that covers the entire life cycle of a product--from the first creation activity to the disposal of its dead hulk. Let’s call it total lean.

What would such a definition include? The production phase has been well-defined by the plethora of books, seminars, conferences, and consulting companies involved in the lean industry. In fact, this area is so well-defined that it’s resulted in suboptimization of the life cycle as a whole. The standard template for lean modeling included with one best-selling software package ends with delivery to the customer, or at least to the distribution channel. This is typical with most software.

This model of lean is incomplete. It ends partway through the process, well before the customer even takes possession of the product. The product doesn’t disappear when it’s delivered to the customer. The processes of acquiring, owning, operating, maintaining, repairing, selling, and disposing are ignored completely. The producer should consider all these consequences of its product being in existence, and more.

When considering customer value, the traditional approach is to consider an activity value-added if all of the following are true:

1. It’s done right the first time.

2. The customer is willing to pay for it.

3. It changes the product/service going through the process (moves, inspection, and storage are nonvalue-added).


If we are to extend the lean model to include the total cost of the product to society, this definition must be modified or extended. Perhaps it could be modified by simply considering the end-to-end process as extending to the final disposal of the product at the salvage yard, rather than ending with delivery to the distribution channel.

I believe that this extension is still inadequate because it excludes the interests of third parties affected by the product’s existence. For example, I may not be willing to pay for pollution-reduction equipment, but that means someone else has to breathe excessive exhaust fumes. Changing rule No. 2 to “The customer and society is willing to pay for it” certainly complicates things. No one is really sure who the entity “society” is, or if it even exists. Still, there are obviously interested noncustomers who must be considered if we’re to implement total lean.

To be sure, defining and implementing total lean is a daunting task--but so was lean. The benefits make the effort worthwhile.



About The Author

Tom Pyzdek’s picture

Tom Pyzdek

Thomas Pyzdek’s career in business process improvement spans more than 40 years. He is the author more than 50 copyrighted works including The Six Sigma Handbook (McGraw-Hill, 2003). He provides online certification and training in Six Sigma and lean. Learn more at


Repair time

I don't usually comment on my own article, but I thought I'd let you know that I got the car from the repair shop after 32 days. That was a month ago and it has been running fine since.

Thomas Pyzdek