Agile Coach (Advanced): The Lean Mindset

I think much of the misunderstanding of Lean is that people don’t understand that it’s more about a mindset shift than anything else. I have been reading Stephen Denning’s excellent book, The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management: Reinventing the Workplace for the 21st Century. I like his explanation about why Lean has been so misunderstood. It aligns with my message that if you look at Lean mostly as a collection of tools, then you miss its point entirely. Here are some excerpts from his book.

Not surprisingly, when the Toyota approach is understood simply as the elimination of waste in production processes and is implemented within the framework of traditional management, without appropriate respect of people, the result is very different from what actually happens in Toyota. When the focus of management is eliminating waste in production processes without respect for workers, all of the effort for improvement falls on the managers. They are the last to find out about a problem. By the time they hear about it, the errors are expensive to fix, and there are fewer eyes and minds available to find solutions. In the Toyota approach, respect for people provides the engine for continuous improvement. It results in a fundamental difference in attitude of those doing the work….

Toyota’s success rested on “the values of trust, respect and continuous improvement that characterize relations within the plant, and the consistency with which these are applied in all the operating systems and management practices. The consistency in alignment is manifest in how people are selected, trained, rewarded and supervised.”

The meaning of Lean

The Machine that Changed the World is in many ways a wonderful book, but it has also contributed to the confusion as to what Toyota does to achieve the results that it has accomplished. Womack, Jones, and Roos contrasted what it called “lean manufacturing techniques” with “mass manufacturing.” It called what Toyota was doing “lean production” “because it uses less of everything compared to mass production—half the human effort in the factory, half the manufacturing space, half the investment in tools, half the engineering hours to develop a new product in half the time. Also it requires keeping far less than half the needed inventory on site, results in many fewer defects, and produces a greater and every growing variety of products.” As a result of The Machine That Changed the World, lean manufacturing has come to be seen as a set of production techniques aimed at eliminating waste. It is presented as a low-level engineering issue—something to be deployed in factories—rather than a strategic issue for top management as to how the entire firm should be organized and run. When lean manufacturing techniques aimed at eliminating waste are shoehorned into a traditional management environment, without respect for people, the results are very different. The engine for continuous self-improvement is missing.

In my view, attempting to do Lean from the mindset that people aren’t important is not doing Lean at all. It is not doing it poorly. It is doing something else entirely.

To me, Lean’s biggest contribution to society is demonstrating that the mindset of “respecting people” can work throughout an organization. Empowering people does not require isolating workers from management. Rather, it provides guidance on how the workers and management can best achieve results – with both roles feeling good about how they are accomplishing their responsibilities. It creates a new paradigm for management and workers.

The fact that Lean goes further and provides a set of tools to help workers and management achieve their results is even better.