Process Improvement and Lean Terminology

There are many terms that are specific to Process Improvement and Lean.  If you are unsure about the meaning of a term you have heard recently, this glossary should help you find a definition.  



5 Whys

The 5 why's typically refers to the practice of asking, five times, why the failure has occurred in order to get to the root cause/causes of the problem.


A system for creating and maintaining an organized work place (sort, store, shine, standardize and sustain)

Affinity Diagram

A tool used to organize and present large amounts of data (ideas, issues, solutions, problems) into logical categories based on user perceived relationships and conceptual frame working. Often used in the form of "sticky notes" sent up to the front of the room in brainstorming exercises, and then grouped by facilitator and workers. Categories are ranked, and duplicate issues are combined to make a simpler overview.


A time boxed, iterative approach to software delivery that builds software incrementally from the start of the project, instead of trying to deliver it all at once near the end.

Backlog Grooming

An agile process for keeping the list of user stories (requirements). User stories may be added, deleted, and prioritized.


Produce an idea or way of solving a problem by holding an open, unhampered group discussion.

Continuous Improvement

It is a never-ending process of adopting new activities and eliminating those which are found to add little or no value. The goal is to increase effectiveness by reducing inefficiencies, frustrations, and waste (rework, time, effort, material, etc.).  

Counter Measure

The actions taken to reduce or eliminate the root causes of problems that are preventing you from reaching your goals.

Current State (Current State Map)

Defines where we are right now, the ‘as-is’, including all areas of defects, waste, wait, etc. The current state value stream map shows the flow of information and identifies opportunities for improvement.


An acronym for Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve and Control is a basic Lean method for process improvement.

Fishbone Diagram

A schematic sketch, usually resembling a fishbone, which illustrates the main causes and sub-causes leading to an effect (symptom).

Future State

A new set of conditions which has been determined will improve both process and information flow; the ‘ideal way’.


Japanese for "improvement", or "change for the better," refers to philosophy or practices that focus upon continuous improvement of processes in manufacturing and business management

Kaizen Event

A structured and focused, short duration problem solving activity used to improve processes throughout the organization. Generally ranges from 3 day to 5 days and typically targets process steps, handoffs, and delays with a goal to improve by a minimum of 50%.


Japanese word for ‘visual signal’. It is a method for managing knowledge work which balances demands for work with the available capacity for new work. Work items are visualized to give participants a view of progress and process, from task definition to customer delivery.


Lean is a strategic and methodical approach to streamline processes while being highly considerate of the individuals completing the work. Ultimately, Lean's purpose is the relentless pursuit to eliminate waste. Another way to look at Lean is continuous improvement.

Lean Thinking

Delivering the most value from your customer's perspective while consuming the fewest resources.

Pareto Chart

Named after Vilfredo Pareto, a type of chart that contains bars, where individual values are represented in descending order by the bars. 80% of the trouble comes from 20% of the problems (i.e. the vital few problems).


A Process is a series of actions that produce something or that lead to a particular result.

Process Mapping

Process mapping is used to visually demonstrate all the steps and decisions in a particular process to bring forth a clearer understanding of that process or series of parallel processes.

Process Flow

Defined as the sequence and interactions of related process steps, activities or tasks that make up an individual process, from beginning to end.

Root Cause

The most basic cause (or causes) that can reasonably be identified that management has control to fix and, when fixed, will prevent (or significantly reduce the likelihood of) the problem’s recurrence.

Root Cause Analysis

A method of problem solving used for identifying the root causes of a problem in a process.


SIPOC stands for suppliers, inputs, process, output, and customers and is a tool used by a team to identify all relevant elements of a process improvement project before work begins.


The acronym SMART can be used to provide a more comprehensive definition of goal setting.  It stands for: Specific, Measurable, Achievable/Attainable, Relevant/Realistic and Time-bound/Timely.


An agile work period, usually 2 weeks, in which the team members commit to complete a defined amount of work.

Sprint Planning

An agile team meeting to identify the work that will be completed during a sprint.


Acronym used to remember the seven wastes: Transportation, Inventory, Motion, Waiting, Over-production, Over-processing, and Defects.  An eighth is sometimes included: Talent.

User Story

A user story is an agile project management term for a software feature, including the type of user that needs it, what they want, and why. For example: “As a ... I want ... So that ...”.

Value Stream Mapping

Value stream mapping is a lean technique used to document, analyze and improve the flow of information or materials required to produce a product or service for a customer. 


The "Voice of the Customer" is the term used to describe the stated and unstated needs or requirements of the customer. The voice of the customer can be captured in a variety of ways: Direct discussion or interviews, surveys, focus groups, customer specifications, observation, warranty data, field reports, complaint logs, etc.