What is Lean?

If someone tells you that “lean management is this” and not something else, if someone puts it in a box and ties a bow around it and presents it in a neat package with four walls around it, then that someone knows not of what they speak. Why? Because it is in motion and not a framed picture hanging on the wall. It is a melody, a rhythm, and not a single note.

What Is Lean Management and Lean Leadership?

Lean management is generally derived from the Toyota Production System as developed by Taiichi Ohno, Shigeo Shingo and others over a forty year period. It began with efforts to reduce die change time on the stamping press which then allowed for a reduction of in-process inventory and this became just-in-time inventory management. This resulted in the need for less warehouse space, fewer forklifts, unnecessary space, etc. Once the flow of work can be interruption free, free of materials sitting, standing, and redo-loops, waste is eliminated. Lean is the elimination of waste. But, more importantly, lean is continuous improvement in all work processes.ll progress is in the dance to the rhythm of challenge-and-response.

In order to improve the work of the die press and reduce waste Shingo did not instruct the workers. He asked the workers to think. He challenged them to innovate and find ways to speed the process by eliminating unnecessary activities. The workers who operated the press and changed dies worked as a team and together they solved problems and sought improvement. It was the front line workers, who were on-the-spot, and who were truly the world’s greatest experts in their work, who experimented, watched the data, and learned from the facts.

The Essense of Lean is Continuous Improvement

This model of improving the work process by those who do the work, by those who are on-the-spot, is the essence of lean management. The model of Shingo asking the work team to think, to experiment, and to learn from the data, is the model of lean management. It is management that is humble and not arrogant. It is management that observes, encourages, challenges, and learns. It is management that gathers the facts, encourages experimentation, and spreads best practices. It is management that practices what they preach to others. This model was quickly copied by Honda and other Japanese companies and has now become the standard of world class manufacturing. And, it has become the standard for management in all types of work settings. Lean is a moving target because, at its heart, lean is a process of learning and improvement. It cannot be defined as something that is standing still or fixed. It is not simply mimicking what happened at Toyota or anywhere else. And, most importantly, it is not a kaizen event, a project, or something done by a consultant. It is best captured as a philosophy rather than a particular method or technique. If you don’t have the philosophy, you don’t get it.

Here are some ways of describing lean philosophy or culture:

Lean is a culture of continuous improvement practiced at every level of the organization and by every team.

Lean is the application of the scientific method of experimentation and study of work processes and systems to find improvements.

 Lean is respect for people. It is respect for the voice of the customer and it is respect for those who do the work, who are “on-the-spot” and are, therefore, the “world’s greatest experts” in their work.

 Lean is the elimination of waste in all its forms. Lean is the ability to distinguish between work that actually adds value to your customers and work that does not. By eliminating waste, you free resources to devote to value-adding activity that serves your customers.

 Lean is a work environment that assures the quality and safety of all work for both customers and staff.

Lean is a focus on improving the work process and not on blaming people or creating fear.

Lean is a culture of teamwork, shared responsibility and ownership that cuts through organization walls or silos.

 Lean is a culture that returns the joy to work. Honda speaks of the three joys of buying, selling and making the product. We do our best work when we have joy in our work. Lean is flow.

Lean is an interruption free process that flows from beginning to end without interruption.

It would be wonderful to believe that simply sharing knowledge of a better way would result in the adoption of that better way. If only we were rational beings. But after assisting dozens of companies with their efforts to institute a lean culture, it is very obvious that the success of those efforts is directly linked to the quality and constancy of lean leadership. Lean Leadership and Lean Culture require very specific actions on the part of leaders and I do not think those actions of been well articulated in previous books and articles. I have attempted to define these actions in my new course on Lean Leadership and Lean Culture and I want to summarize them here.

To Challenge and to Serve
Leaders define the mountain to be climbed, the worthy purpose that will motivate followers to sacrifice. They then recognize the task to serve the needs of their followers by enabling them, providing the tools, the guidance, the skills, the path toward success, and finally, celebrating that success. Challenging employees and then serving them may seem to be almost contradictory functions, but they are both necessary sides to the same coin.

The Challenge is the Strategy

The challenge is strategy… it is where we are going and why we are going there, and it is only the leaders of the organization who can set that strategy and establish the challenge. It is the primary function of leadership in every organization, whether an army or an entrepreneurial start-up company. Too many leaders set their sights too low. They are too practical. They establish a target, a challenge, of improving operating efficiency by ten percent. Or, reducing cycle time by twenty percent. Do those goals inspire you? Do you seriously think they inspire employees to sacrifice for “the cause.” I doubt it. Because we are too often punished for the failure to achieve goals we reduce our vision to that which is easily understood and achieved.

Toyota’s global vision states:  “Toyota will lead the way to the future of mobility, enriching lives around the world with the safest and most responsible ways of moving people.  

Through our commitment to quality, constant innovation and respect for the planet, we aim to exceed expectations and be rewarded with a smile.”  

That’s big! Toyota isn’t in the car business, they are in the mobility business, and their job is to enrich lives around the world! From that challenge may flow ten thousand more specific challenges, targets or goals, that lead to the fulfillment of the big vision. But, you must start with a motivating challenge that gives people dignity and purpose. That is the root cause of motivation and change.

Lean Leaders are “Servant Leaders”

I have identified six specific functions of lean leaders, each of which are essential to implementing lean principles in an organization. Here is a quick overview of those six functions. (These are explained in some detail in my course.)  

1. Develop External/Business Strategy Business strategy is a response to external threats and opportunities, both employing and then developing internal capabilities. Lean leadership and culture is not divorced from business strategy, but is rather a means of developing the internal capabilities that will enable the organization to execute business strategy.  

2. Develop Internal Culture Strategy

External strategy defines where we are going. Internal strategy defines what we need to get there. Strategy is only achieved if there is alignment of internal culture and capabilities to the strategy. Peter Drucker is reported to have said that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” The point is that you can’t achieve a business strategy if you don’t have the necessary culture and capabilities. The absence of this alignment creates friction, and friction is waste… not lean!  

3. Lead System Design
Too many lean consultants think you can simply go into an organization and start doing PDCA problem solving at the first level and create a lean culture. This is too easy! Too often the barriers that create interruptions and waste in the process are determined at a higher level. They are both social and technical. They are the relationships with suppliers, the layout of the plant, the existence of warehouses and staffs. They are layers of management that suck decision up and rob employees of dignity and the ability to solve problems. In short, they are system problems that require design thinking! The lean leader recognizes the need for systems and structure to align with strategy and creates a process of redesign.  

4. Be the Model

Leadership is modeling the behavior desired of others. If you have sat in a meeting of senior managers at Honda or Toyota, as I have, you would witness the practice of effective team management, problem-solving and consensus reaching. You would also witness leaders asking if they have “been on the spot” (the Gemba) to directly observe the work and listen to the “world’s greatest experts.” In other words, they are practicing Respect for People and Continuous Improvement, the two core principles of lean culture. Your ability to institute culture change is directly related to your ability to be a model of that culture.  

5. Coach & Develop Others 

A leader is a coach. A leader knows that his or her job is to develop the capacity of others. The greater the capacity of others the easier is the job of the leader. At Toyota every manager has a coach, an internal coach, a peer. I developed my course on Coaching Leaders for Continuous Improvement to aid in the development of this internal capacity. Continuous improvement is not only about the production line. It is about personal development, the desire to personally improve our own skills. This is the job of a coach and we need to develop a culture of coaching others, which is a form of service to others.  

6. Motivation and Accountability

In our desire to develop a positive culture it may be easy to put aside the reality that it is the manager’s job to hold others accountable. Even in an environment of self-directed teams, the manager is responsible for assuring that those teams are accountable for performance. Toyota practices “Four-to-One” which is the practice of four positive comments to one negative. Research in the 1960’s by Dr. Ogden Lindsley demonstrated that the optimum learning environment sees more positive than negative interactions. The actual ratio he found was 3.57 to one. While the exact number is not important, it is important that we recognize that motivation to continuously improve must be reinforced positively.  Each of these six components of lean leadership deserve serious study and practice by the leader or manager wishing to implement lean management and culture. I have tried to aid that study with my Udemy course on Lean Leadership and Lean Culture.

Let's connect on social...