Lean – what’s not to like?


Success in Lean transformation is contingent on engagement at all levels within organisations. Real change requires winning the hearts and minds of the workforce and getting this right at the outset demands serious consideration. Often, preconceptions and incorrect perception of Lean can hamper early steps; indeed the “Lean” label itself is often the first hurdle to overcome.

For someone who specialises in continuous improvement I frequently reflect that the choice of the word was pretty unfortunate. While the philosophy, thinking and methods behind this area have been around since the 40s and arguably long before that, the word is relatively recent, having been coined by MBA student John Krafcik in his 1988 article, "Triumph of the Lean Production System," as part of his master’s thesis at the MIT Sloan School of Management. The term came to prominence subsequently with the publication of the international best-seller book co-authored by Jim Womack, Daniel Jones, and Daniel Roos called “The Machine that changed the World”  and further with Womack & Jones seminal “Lean Thinking”.

What do you suppose that word “Lean” conjures up when staff hear it for the first time? How excited do you think they might feel when they hear they’ll be “doing Lean” or “going Lean” or even worse “being Leaned”……Most weeks I find myself engaging with new groups of people many of whom are just being introduced to the idea of Lean, or perhaps have had some vague messaging about it in the past. When I ask about their perceptions of Lean and what it might mean to them, all  too frequently the initial responses are less than positive. Top of the list is the “Lean & MEAN!” message and the connotations vary from there to span references to “the lean years”, being made more efficient, thrifty, economical, no excess of fat, lacking flesh(?),…hardly inspiring stuff!

And not a great place to start when the people holding these perceptions may potentially determine success or failure of a Lean transformational journey.

I’ve many times reflected that if I ever meet John Krafcik, I won’t be overly thankful to him for gifting us the “Lean” term.

So where do we start to win the hearts and minds at the very outset? Processes and workplaces won’t improve themselves. Again and again study after study confirms to us that it’s all about our people, people are our only appreciating asset, what the power of engaged people can do for our organisations, processes, bottom lines and shareholders. Yet as I visit businesses the length and breadth of the country I’ve yet to come across a workforce jumping out of bed in the morning inspired and excited to  be starting another fulfilling and rewarding day at their workplace. Too often I hear them talk instead of struggle, frustration, pain, recurring problems, inter departmental rivalries, stress, battles, blood sweat and tears until the shift ends and they can go home. And come back and do it all over again tomorrow…and many tomorrows for the rest of their careers!

The opportunity this presents is enormous. As we introduce the thinking and approach, we need to offer our people a better alternative. We must emphasise the positive messages of creating better workplaces, developing our people, their knowledge and skillsets, improving capability, eliminating frustration and stress.. We need move them away from the “Lean & Mean” preconception and shout the message of empowering people to take control of, and have pride in their work environments.   We need to challenge and support them in making work easier by eliminating recurring sources of frustration. We need to interest our people in embracing and becoming good at problem solving and experiencing the satisfaction and fulfillment that change and continuous improvement can bring.

To accomplish this we must give our people strong vivid descriptors of what the future can bring and the fulfilling part they can play in that journey.  We can share the messages we hear from others who are making progress on the journey – when you listen to organisations that are making this progress you’ll hear things like  “things are calmer”,  “less frustrations”, “easier”, “our work area is transformed”,  “things just flow”, “the work moves faster not the people”, “cleaner, brighter and organised” , “world class processes”, “world class team” and most importantly,  “I’m really listened to and supported”.

So as we approach changing the way we drive and improve our businesses and operations using Lean methods we need to start by being crystal clear in our heads about these positive messages while also setting expectations about the journey ahead and what the first steps will be. The initial challenge to focus on, is ensuring that our people are personally and individually engaged and thinking “What’s not to like?”. Lean is anything but Mean…get that message across and you’re off to a great start.


Eddie is a Lean and Six Sigma Practitioner, Coach, and leader in the provision of Lean and Continuous improvement training & education with LBS Partners. LBS Partners is a provider to ManagementWorks on our Lean Business programme.