Lean Is About People – Not Engineering

Do you ever feel tempted to just engineer Lean into your team?  Want to tell your team to implement one piece flow, pull systems, cell layouts, and other tools?

The above is an easy temptation.  What is missing from a desire to engineer is the understanding that Lean is about people.

Peter Block says  in “Flawless Consulting” that most problems can not be fixed by engineering alone and are usually people problems.  I love his example of how an architect can easily design and build a house, but it is more difficult to work with the family to understand their needs and wants.  He points out that organizations have more complexities than a single family house.

If you are in leadership and you want to engineer your team, I challenge your commitment to the respect for people principle.  You are not equipping your team to use their minds to solve problems if you tell them how to design their work.   You are even more guilty if you try to design their work without ever spending time in gemba.

Trust your team to solve outcome problems (reduce wait time, remove inventory, ect) not how-to problems (implement flow, create pull, ect).  Your people will gain a deeper understanding of Lean by utilizing its principles to solve outcome problems. 

If you liked this post, then try:

 My 2009 Hansei: Scarcity inspires creativity and innovation.  How can I help harness that inspiration?

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Filed under Improve With Lean, Learn Leadership, Problem Solving, Respect For People

2 responses to “Lean Is About People – Not Engineering

  1. Mary


    I’m a Performance Improvement / Industrial Engineer. My department is running a simulation with the entire plant. We’ve started to see a concerning trend during the simulation. The general goal of the simulation is to do the work with less people and higher quality / production. People are not “giving up” there jobs though. One of the simple solutions is to eliminate the kitter and / or material handler because they are not necessary in the simulation and create more waste than add value. There is a huge fear of giving up their jobs.

    How do I get this game to include the idea that management is not going to fire them if they improve?

    • Thanks for reaching out Mary,

      Having your president state a no lay off policy is a great first step. Hopefully this message is repeated often where front line staff hear it (not just said in front of other execs).

      I wonder what the root cause for the fear is. That will ultimately help your countermeasures.

      Explaining what will happen when someone’s job or major set processes are eliminated is important. Identifying where someone will be moved to and committing to training/development of that person so they succeed in new duties. Some people will transition into a Lean Promotion office or role where they focus on improvements (we use this example for the Airplane sim). I discuss this in the assessment and planning portion with the sponsor and process owner for improvements instead of figuring it out after the improvement has been made.

      I also like to communicate that Lean is about doing more with the same people (not less). This helps people know the motivation is not about head-cutting.

      Lastly, you may need to be transparent about how past improvement efforts have gone. If layoffs or random reassignments without training were the norm prior to Lean, it is important to communicate that things are different now. If lessons have been learned that prior reduction of roles was bad in the past, explain why they were bad/unfavorable. Some hopeful lessons have been the effects of losing institutional knowledge.

      Please let me know if this helps!

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