Lean as a Supply Chain Strategy

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In my last post, I started a series on the conventional supply chain strategies and why they are inadequate to help firms trying to design their supply chains. This continues the series with the focus on lean as a supply chain strategy.

Lean primarily refers to elimination of waste and is the basic philosophy that originated as part of Toyota Production Systems, with its emphasis on the elimination of waste (muda). Therefore, this philosophy is based on reducing the cost by eliminating activities that do not directly add any value. Cost can be reduced in two ways: (1) by identifying and eliminating the wasteful activities that don’t add any value and (2) by enhancing the efficiency of a required activity so that the throughput of the process can be increased. A lot of supply chain activities can directly leverage this thinking. Most execution activities in a supply chain can benefit from lean thinking, such as picking, packing, loading, and unloading in a warehouse; routing of shipments in transportation; labor activities on receiving docks at warehouses, stores, and manufacturing plants; and so on.

Loading a container ship

What does a lean design for a supply chain mean? A lean supply chain design requires that supply chains minimize the cost of operations at all levels. Lean requires that the supply chain uses the least amount of resources to efficiently complete its job. The primary resources in a supply chain are inventory, warehouses, trucks, people, and working capital. A lean supply chain will be designed to have minimal inventories in the system, minimal amount of warehousing space required to store these inventories, and optimized shipments to reduce the cost of moving inventory. A lean supply chain will also be designed to establish long-term, stable supply contracts with the lowest negotiated cost, but typically without any substantial ability to change ordered quantities, delivery destinations, and required need dates after the order has been placed. Lean design will most likely not engage secondary suppliers, because a second tier of suppliers is expensive to maintain. All of these factors will reduce the costs of the supply chain operations, making it extremely cost-efficient, but will also constrain the supply chain’s ability to adapt to any changes in demand, supply, or other resources, due to the built-in rigidity of the design.

And therein, lies the rub: Low inventories make the supply chain vulnerable to not being able to fulfill orders if the demand suddenly spikes or if there are changes in demand that were not foreseen. Inability to change orders with the suppliers also constrains the supply chain’s ability to react to any changes in demand and may saddle the supply chain with unwanted inventory. Having no secondary suppliers also limits the ability of the supply chain to reacting to spikes in demand and/or exposes it to supply failures from the primary suppliers. The focus on being lean prevents this supply chain from building redundancy by design which reduces supply chain’s ability to manage variability.

On the other hand, the only reason for supply chains to exist is to manage variability! So a lean focus ion supply chain design actually goes against the very basic nature of the supply chains. However, if the lean focus is seen simply as the most efficient way to execute business operations (which include a fair amount of agility to respond to natural volatility in demand), then it can be used to design effective supply chains. Also – if lean is a supply chain strategy that is good in certain conditions, I would like to know when is lean not good? When should a firm spend more money than is absolutely required to organize its operations?

Also, most firms have a large assortment of material to be managed: Raw materials, WIP, finished goods, and retail assortments almost always consist of a mixed bag of products when it comes to their demand profile. While some products may have a stable demand profile, others will be more volatile to manage. This means that the enterprise supply chain that must be designed to cater to all these types of products must be lean (to best manage the products with a stable demand) and agile (to manage others with volatile demand) simultaneously. After all, you could not run a business with a lean supply chain with the lowest cost, but that cannot respond to any changes in demand or supply. Since all demand and supply has inherent variability, such a rigidly designed supply chain will quickly build up unwanted and obsolete inventories as it is incapable of reacting to changes in demand and supply. Of course, too much emphasis on creating agility may be expensive and may also not provide the best design as we shall see when we discuss agile as a supply chain strategy.

Finally, the cost focus serves much better a generic business strategy as suggested by Michael Porter because a cost focus can be used effectively to drive any corporate function, such as accounting, human resources, merchandising, production planning, engineering and so on: There is nothing specific about the cost focus that would make it work any extra magic for supply chain than what it can do for any other corporate function, and hence its inability to drive supply chain strategy!


  • Supply chains must manage variability and an exclusive focus on lean prevents supply chains to be designed effectively for managing natural variability and hence from doing their most important job.
  • As most firms have several products to manage and these products have widely varying demand and lead-time patterns, the enterprise supply chain must be designed to work for all these products without undue focus on a single characteristic.
  • There is nothing special about the cost focus that helps driving supply chain strategy any more than it can do for any other corporate function. To that extent it remains an effective business strategy, but not a supply chain strategy.


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© Vivek Sehgal, 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Want to know more about supply chains? How they work, what they afford, and how to design one? Check out my books on Supply Chain Management at Amazon.


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