Lean engineering : principles, limits and benefits

What is Lean engineering

Lean Engineering, is an approach based on the concept of Lean management, which aims to minimize waste and maximize productivity in operations management. In the context of engineering or R&D, this means optimizing design and project delivery processes to be more efficient, while ensuring quality and meeting deadlines and budgets.

Lean Engineering: Key Principle, Waste Elimination and Tools

Key principles

The principles of Lean Engineering come from Lean Manufacturing, adapted to the specific challenges of engineering or R&D. These principles are generally recognized as:
  1. Defining Value: Understanding what customers truly value. In the context of engineering, this includes considerations such as product performance, reliability, ease of use, durability and cost. This may not seem new in engineering which usually starts from a customer specification. However, specifications are always written by people who are not end customers. They can then themselves define requirements that are not the real and deep needs of customers. Lean engineering encourages in-depth exchange, even testing with customers. Thus, an iterative approach, based on prototypes, demonstrators, etc., makes it possible to better understand customer value. The specifications will then have to become evolutionary and not "static".

  2. Identify the Value Stream: Identify all the processes needed to turn an idea into a product or service ready to be delivered to the customer. It is important to eliminate all processes that do not add value from the customer's perspective.

  3. Create a Continuous Flow: Optimize the engineering process so that work progresses smoothly and continuously, without delays or interruptions. This can include methods like concurrent engineering, where different process steps are carried out in parallel rather than sequentially.

  4. Establish a pull: In the context of Lean manufacturing, it is called pull, where production is based on actual demand rather than forecast. In engineering and R&D, the concept of pull development may be a little less direct, but it is still applicable. As stated in the "Defining Value" principle, an iterative development approach can be preferred. In this approach, one first develops a minimal version of the product or a mock-up, then uses customer feedback to "pull" the next version to be developed.

  5. Pursuing Perfection: This is about constantly looking for ways to improve processes and eliminate waste. This involves a culture of continuous improvement where every team member is encouraged to identify and resolve issues.

  6. Respect people: In Lean, people are considered the most important aspect of any organization. That's why it's essential to respect, train and empower team members.


Elimination of Waste: The 8 wastes of Lean Engineering

Lean engineering wastes

In the Lean philosophy, the "8 wastes" (or "8 mudas" in Japanese) represent the non-productive activities that we seek to eliminate. In the context of Lean Engineering, these losses can be interpreted as follows:

  1. Overproduction: Performing more work or producing more components or products than is necessary. In engineering, this concerns the design of additional functions that are not required by the customer, or the late termination of certain projects.
  2. Waiting: Idle time between the different steps of a process. This can happen when team members are waiting for information or resources to start or continue their work.
  3. Transportation: Unnecessary movement of tools or materials. In engineering, it relates much more to information flows : excessive, manual or erroneous transfer of information and useless search for information
  4. Motion : Unnecessary movement of people. It is the same in engineering, with people moving between site, laboratory, desk...
  5. Overprocessing: Performing work that is unnecessary or adding value to the customer. it's about writing detailed reports when a simple update would be enough, or running additional tests that aren't necessary.
  6. Overstorage: Store more materials, parts or finished products as necessary. In engineering, it can also refer to excessive collection and retention of information or data. Or to developments in progress.
  7. Defects: Products or services that do not meet customer expectations. In engineering, this refers to errors in design or construction that require revisions and corrections.
  8. Unused talents: Talents, skills and knowledge of employees that are under-used or not used at all.

Some Lean methods adapted to Lean Engineering

Lean Engineering uses a variety of tools and techniques to achieve its goals. Here are some examples.

Value Stream Mapping (VSM)

Value stream mapping is a tool used in Lean to visualize and analyze the flow of information or materials required to make a product or service. In the context of Lean Engineering, this could mean creating a diagram showing all the steps needed to design, develop, test and deliver an engineering product. By visualizing these steps, a team can identify where delays, bottlenecks, and waste are occurring, and work to eliminate them.

Kanban system

Kanban is a project management system that aims to visualize work, limit the amount of work in progress, and maximize efficiency. In Lean Engineering, one can use a Project Kanban board: This is a visual board that tracks the progress of individual tasks in a project. Each task is represented by a card that moves through different columns as it progresses through the steps in the process.


Kaizen is a continuous improvement approach that encourages all team members to come up with and implement ideas to improve processes. In the context of Lean Engineering, a team of engineers might hold regular Kaizen meetings to discuss problems encountered in their work, propose solutions, and implement changes. This could include things like reducing development times, improving development quality (out-of-specification items), or more test automation.

Benefits of Lean Engineering

When implemented correctly, Lean Engineering can provide many benefits, such as:

  1. Improved efficiency: This can be shorter product development cycles, greater ability to manage multiple projects, and better use of available resources.
  2. Quality Increase: The principles and tools of Lean Engineering encourage constant attention to quality. This can allow quality issues to be detected and corrected earlier in the development process, thus avoiding greater costs and delays later.
  3. Accelerated Time to Market: Reduced time needed to bring a new product or technology to market.
  4. Improving Customer Satisfaction: By focusing on creating value for the customer and responding to their needs more quickly and efficiently, Lean Engineering can improve satisfaction and loyalty customers.
  5. Creating a Culture of Continuous Improvement: Lean Engineering encourages all team members to participate in process improvement and problem solving.
  6. Improved collaboration: Lean Engineering tools and methods, such as Kanban and stand-up meetings, promote better communication and coordination between team members and departments . This can lead to better collaboration and faster issue resolution.


What are the limits of Lean Engineering? Is it suitable for all industries?

"Classic" limits and risks of Lean Engineering

As in any approach, there are certain difficulties and risks in implementing Lean engineering. Here are the most common risks:
  1. Resistance to change: As with any organizational change initiative, the implementation of Lean Engineering can encounter internal resistance. This may stem from fear of the unknown, distrust of the new approach, or clinging to old ways.

  2. Need a long-term commitment: Lean Engineering is a continuous improvement approach that requires a long-term commitment. If management's commitment falters, or if employees fail to see the value of the Lean approach, efforts to build a Lean culture can fail.

  3. Underestimating complexity: Sometimes, in an effort to eliminate "garbage", certain complexities inherent in the task or project can be underestimated. This can lead to poor planning and ineffective implementation.

  4. Risk of over-optimization: There is a risk of optimizing processes too much to the point that it becomes counterproductive. For example, eliminating too many resources with waste reduction in mind can end up with insufficient resources to handle unforeseen problems or spikes in demand.

The iterative approach, a more particular difficulty according to the industry

The iterative approach, which is at the heart of Lean Engineering, can pose significant challenges depending on the type of industry and the products or systems to be developed.

In this approach, the product is developed and improved in repeated cycles, with each cycle focusing on delivering a small portion of value to the customer. This approach has several advantages, including:

  • It allows you to collect feedback from customers or users on an ongoing basis and integrate it into the product as development progresses.
  • It reduces the risk associated with development by allowing problems to be detected and corrected earlier.
  • It offers greater flexibility to adapt to changes in customer or market needs.

That being said, the iterative approach can be more or less easy to apply depending on the type of development or research. We can distinguish three cases, Industries with short development times, those with long development and highly uncertain research.

Short development time industries

The iterative approach is generally easier to apply in industries where development cycles are short and the costs of manufacturing a prototype are low. This is especially true for software development. This remains true for many electronic devices, and certain types of consumer goods. In these cases, it is often possible to produce prototypes quickly and at low cost, allowing the product to be tested and adjusted at each iteration. 3D printing is one technology that can facilitate this approach.

Long development time industries

For these industries, such as automotive, aerospace, or civil engineering, the iterative approach can be trickier to implement. However, it is not impossible. In these cases, it may be useful to break the product down into subsystems or components, and develop each iteratively. For example, in the development of a car, it may be possible to develop and test the chassis, doors, seats, etc., each iteratively. In addition, modeling and simulation techniques, or even 3D printing can be used to test changes before they are definitively implemented. We can cite a few examples:

  1. Airbus, aircraft manufacturer: For example, when developing the A350 XWB, Airbus began by testing subsystems of the aircraft, such as the fuselage and wings, before proceeding to final assembly. This process involved potential customers and users who provided valuable feedback for the development of the aircraft.
  2. Medtronic, Manufacturer of Medical Devices: Medtronic, a manufacturer of medical devices, also uses an iterative approach to product development. They create prototypes of their devices, such as pacemakers, and test them with a select group of users (usually doctors and patients under medical supervision).
  3. Caterpillar, heavy equipment manufacturer: Caterpillar, a heavy equipment manufacturer, uses an iterative approach to develop its machines. They create prototypes of new machine designs, such as bulldozers and excavators, and test them in real conditions. Feedback from these tests is then used to improve the machine's design and performance. ine.
  4. Siemens Healthcare, manufacturer of medical imaging systems: For example, when designing their MRI scanners, they produced working prototypes in each iteration, which were tested and used to collect data. The data was then used to refine the design and improve scanner performance.

Highly uncertain research

In some environments, it seems that the application of Lean is less suitable, even counterproductive. This particularly applies to highly creative and uncertain research and development environments, such as Basic Research, where processes are not easily standardized and where failure is part of the learning process.

How do you implement an iterative approach when the context, or even the customer, doesn't lend itself to it?

In certain situations, and in particular in cases where the specifications are prevalent, the implementation of an iterative approach may seem impossible.
This is particularly often the case in B2B. The client may have put a lot of effort into creating an exhaustive and detailed specification, which at first glance may seem at odds with a Lean Engineering approach, which prioritizes adaptability and responsiveness to change. However, there are solutions to overcome this barrier:

  1. Education and Communication: An important first step can be educating the customer on the benefits of Lean Engineering and explaining to them how this approach can ultimately result in a product or service that better meets to his needs. This may require open and honest dialogue and ongoing communication throughout the development process.

  2. Contractual Flexibility: It may also be useful to explore contractual options that allow flexibility in the development of the product or service. For example, instead of a fixed-price contract based on specific specifications, you might consider a time-and-materials-based contract, which allows greater flexibility to make changes as the project is progressing.

  3. Iterative Development: Even in the context of a fixed specification, it is often possible to take an iterative development approach, where the product or service is developed and delivered in small parts. This allows the client to see and appreciate the work as it is being done, and provides the opportunity to make adjustments along the way.

  4. Include the customer in the process: Another strategy is to integrate the customer into the development process. This can take the form of regular project review meetings, co-creation workshops, user testing or prototype demonstrations. This allows the customer to see and understand the development process, and provides an opportunity to gather their feedback and incorporate it into the product or service.

  5. Development in partnership: In some cases, it may be beneficial to engage the customer as a partner in the development. It means working together, not just as supplier and customer, but as a team that shares responsibility for the success of the project.

Lean engineering vs. V-model, Waterfall, Agile, Scrum?

Lean Engineering has important implications for the various project management methods, in particular the V cycle. While the impacts are less, or even completely aligned for the Agile and Scrum methods.

Lean Engineering and V- model or Waterfall

The V-model or Waterfall model are product development method where each phase of the process is validated by a corresponding test phase before moving on to the next phase, starting from very precise specifications. The V-model or Waterfall may be less suited to Lean principles due to itheir sequential nature and the importance of initial specifications, with a strong resistance to change once a project has started. Lean promotes flexibility, adaptability and continuous improvement, which can be difficult to implement within the rigid V-model or Waterfall framework.
However, a breakdown into subsystems and therefore multiple cycles in nested V can lend itself to iterative approaches for all or part of the subsystems. In fact, this decomposition has often resulted in a Concurrent Engineering approach.

Lean Engineering and Concurrent Engineering

Simultaneous engineering, or concurrent engineering, is an approach that seeks to straddle different stages of the development process to accelerate time to market. In this case, the different subsystems generally have more degrees of freedom and can therefore use more iterative approaches.

Lean Engineering and Agile/Scrum

Agile and Scrum development methods were invented by software development professionals who were looking for alternatives to traditional project management methods, often called waterfall methods, which are linear and sequential. These traditional methods were often seen as inflexible and inefficient in responding to changing customer needs and rapidly changing technologies.

Agile and Scrum were developed with the goal of creating more flexible and responsive software development processes. They focus on short, iterative development cycles, with close collaboration between team members and ongoing communication with the client.

They are not directly derived from Lean, but are based on the same principles. They are therefore particularly suitable for Lean Engineering, even confused. In software development, it could even be said that the term Lean Engineering is rarely used in favour of Agile or Scrum methodologies.

For example, pull production, a key concept of Lean, is reflected in the way work is divided into sprints and delivered according to customer needs. Likewise, the Lean principle of striving for perfection is reflected in Agile and Scrum's emphasis on continuous improvement.

In addition, specific Lean tools, such as Kanban, are often used within Agile and Scrum methodologies to visualize workflow and identify bottlenecks, which helps improve efficiency and reduce waste.

Is Lean Engineering well adopted by companies?

Considering the benefits, but also the difficulties of implementing Lean Engineering, the adoption rate remains fairly low. A 2015 study conducted by BCG and RWTH Aachen University showed a routine adoption rate of less than 20% (rising to 51% if you include experiments) across multiple industries. This compares with 60-70% for Lean Manufacturing.


Lean Engineering is a powerful method to optimize design and project delivery processes allowing greater customer satisfaction with reduced costs and time. However, like any method, it must be used judiciously according to the context of the company, its sector, its customers and partners.

Do you work in a high-performance organisation?
Find out if your company or team is using the best management practices by answering Wevalgo's self-assessments

Become an improvement leader within your team by sharing your analyses


Click on one of the following buttons to start

You will benefit from the expertise of management consultants who have implemented these best practices with thousands of managers around the world. Wevalgo puts this know-how, secretly guarded by traditional consultancies, at your service.

Evaluate your clients' practices if you are a consultant.    

You may also access our unique directory of by function and industry

Stay Informed

When you subscribe to the blog, we will send you an e-mail when there are new updates on the site so you wouldn't miss them.

Related Posts



No comments made yet. Be the first to submit a comment
Already Registered? Login Here
Saturday, 13 July 2024