The terms “Lean” and “Process Improvement” aren’t interchangeable. In fact, while they both seek bottom line savings, that’s where the similarities end. 

Here are some very broad strokes of what defines these tactics in relation to each other. Bottom line: their approaches feed off each other, and you’ll get better results with an integrated approach than a focus on one or the other.



This is the adaptable orthodoxy that started in manufacturing and has spread across industries. Its core focus is eliminating Kaizen (waste). 

Lean is an umbrella term for approaches to both cutting waste and (especially with manufacturing) increasing productivity.

Top-Down Approach

Eliminating waste is usually uncomfortable for front line workers. As such, the decision to “go lean” usually comes down from the corner office. 

If you’re a boss contemplating Lean, proceed with caution. It’s tempting (and easy) to cut waste by reducing staffing levels. You’ll get a short-lived bump to the bottom line and, for the next month or so, everything is roses.

But a top-down only approach is fraught with danger. Overworked staff will take unsafe short-cuts, grumble, break down morale, call in sick more often, and erode that cost savings in a host of other ways. 

Before you know it, you’re losing more money than you saved, and your staff are now resistant to Lean in general.

lean vs process improvement comparison table

Process Improvement

While Lean is a methodology, Process Improvement is a tactic. 

This focuses on the countless processes that happen daily in your business. It’s a proactive approach that investigates existing processes and improves upon them, often incrementally, in order to build efficiencies. 

When a process improvement is introduced, we all start out with the best of intentions. The key isn’t to stay excited about those great ideas—it’s to own them. Even after the novelty wears off.


You can’t improve processes without constant dialogue with the people who understand them best. That’s why the first step to Process Improvement is to get out of the office and onto the shop floor, to the front desk, or to the sites and ask your team what’s bugging them about how they do their jobs. 

This is grassroots. It’s listening to your staff about incremental, sustainable improvements. These aren’t the big cuts that come from staff changes; they’re small and meant to accumulate over time.

The side benefits of Process Improvement, which are often as valuable (or more) than the savings, are increased staff morale and engagement, as well as what you’ll learn from becoming more active in the trenches.

But this approach, done solo, is also dangerous. If the changes are all happening in a grassroots, decentralized way, they could end up actually adding costs to the bottom line. That’s why the “Lean big brother” needs to be monitoring and making the real financial decisions.


Better Together

Lean is a methodology of cutting waste with decisions coming from the boardroom. Process Improvement is a tactic of learning about how to make processes more efficient by talking to front line staff.

If cost savings were the diamond in the middle, these two are looking at it from totally different angles—but the common goal means they can work together to reduce waste without sacrificing morale, and improve processes without increasing costs.


“If you define the problem correctly, you almost have the solution.”

Steve Jobs