Lean Transformations Group

10 Important Shifts in Thinking That People Don’t Talk About with Lean

As a business leader and coach, I’m in awe of how many times I see teams try to “implement Lean” without making critical shifts in leadership thinking. What this tells me is that the lean community hasn’t done a great job of explaining what Lean is all about and why it requires leadership to shift their thinking to be able to benefit organizations at all.

Here are the shifts in thinking I’ve observed over the course of my career and that I’ve had to make myself, time and time again.

  1. “Performance to Plan.” The industrial anthropologist John Shook had told this story more than a few times at various conferences on lean thinking and practice. When he was pressed by GM executives to tell them the most important lean metric, John offered that there is one metric that the whole organization should be looking at all the time: Performance to Plan. In other words, if your current plan is merely a wish list of things to get done, and if the organization has not dissected the plan to fully understand which parts of the plan each person owns and exactly what is expected... you do not have a good plan. Certainly not a “lean” one. When you have a plan that is clear, realistic, and well socialized, you can use “deviation from plan” as the definition of a problem to be solved.
  2. “Be present at Gemba.” Take the time to actually watch what is happening with the work. Timing, assigning judgements of “value added versus non-value added” and making changes, and asking questions--all of these things can wait. Start by just watching until you understand what is happening. This takes time, and it also takes the skill of being as unobtrusive as possible. Your presence has an impact. Understand that impact and aim to minimize your impact by observing, not judging. By the way, this is part of showing respect and care for the value creator, the person closest to the work.
  3. Problem solving is a skill that needs to be taught. In Lean, we talk a lot about how the people closest to the work need to be creating value while solving problems. This is true. But the fact is, not everybody knows how to solve problems! Few people have been taught how to do so or have been given the opportunity. This means that as leaders, we need to teach people how to solve problems as we teach lean thinking and practice. This includes creating a safe environment to learn in. Learning (and therefore problem solving) are full of failure. Even in the bravest soul, this can create insecurity. As a leader, ask yourself, have you created an environment that is truly safe to learn in? Have you created leaders who know how to coach problem solving? Does the plan have time built in for people to spend time on methodical problem solving? 
  4. Lean thinking and practice must be tied to value in terms of quality, cost, safety. Without making an explicit link to one or more of these things, we can’t expect things to improve in any of these areas. In Jim Womack’s Gemba Walks (2nd Edition), he reflects on the bicycle company he was an owner in and offers the strong advice to not “put lean orthodoxy ahead of customer value and business needs.” Organizations need to attend to customers, stakeholders, and employees to survive.
  5. Checks matter and are essential to PDCA. A quality check in and of itself is waste; a quality check immediately followed by a true “adjust” is lean. You can’t do PCDA without doing an actual check. How long do you have to do checks? Until you have a stable process with 0% defects! Every defect is an opportunity to learn. If you have more opportunities than problem solvers, work on creating problem solvers (i.e. add capability and capacity to your organization).
  6. As a leader, you owe it to your team members to help solve problems. There are three ways to help: doing something for someone, doing something with someone, and helping someone do something for themselves. As a leader, the more you can help someone problem solve by themselves, the more capacity you build. If you are too busy to acknowledge that something is a problem, then your organization will be right there with you! 
  7. If you try to create a playbook (or worse, copy someone else’s playbook) for Lean, you kill it’s essence. Lean is a set of principles that when applied help your organization create value (by developing capabilities and tools to continually create value). Focus on understanding the principles to create the capabilities and tools.
  8. It’s good to have a bit of outrage. As I’ve written before, as a leader, you have to be personally upset about the fact that things in your organization can be much better than they are. This is something my colleague Andrew Lingel and I speak about often. If you don’t get outraged enough to do some thinking and take action, your lean effort will inevitably stale.
  9. Maintain your curiosity. Ask yourself why? Why is this happening? Why have we not solved this problem or that problem? Why did we do this in the first place? Why has the organization been blind to this problem for so long? Why have I accepted “good enough” as an answer to so many problems? Curiosity will lead you to new knowledge.
  10. Grit. These nine shifts in thinking listed above are really hard. This approach to your work will test your commitment to your lean transformation and you will need to dig deep to find the grit to stay the course. Will it be worth it? I think so. You’ll not only end up creating so much more value for customers, but you’ll enjoy work so much more, too, and your team members will be happier. But it takes tremendous grit and a different way of thinking, not just acting.

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