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Lean principles were originally developed in industrial operations as a set of tools and practices that managers and workers could use to eliminate waste and inefficiency from production systems--reducing costs, improving quality and reliability, and speeding up cycle times. Toyota Motor pioneered lean practices, and much of their allure today stems from the fact that the phenomenal performance of this automaker, in one of the world's most competitive sectors, rests to a considerable extent on its ability to develop and perfect these practices over the past five decades.
Recently, lean techniques have moved from manufacturing plants to operations of all kinds, everywhere: insurance companies, hospitals, government agencies, airline maintenance organizations, high-tech product-development units, oil production facilities, IT operations, retail buying groups, and publishing companies, to name just a few. In each case the goal is to improve the organization's performance on the operating metrics that make a competitive difference, by drawing employees into the hunt to eliminate unneeded activities and other forms of operational waste.
The biggest challenges in adopting the lean approach in non-industrial environments are to know which of its tools or principles to use and how to apply them effectively. In emerging markets such as China or India, manufacturing managers trying to implement the lean approach also face these challenges. Differences in everything from culture to infrastructure mean that managers can't apply the lean tools and techniques used in manufacturing operations in Moline or Munich to non-industrial environments or to manufacturing plants in the developing world; the approach must be tailored to the realities of specific environments.
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