The agency I work for is trying to get lean. I’m not talking about the agency’s “Wellness Program” that is encouraging everybody to exercise and eat right. Lean is a management approach that promises improved processes, customer satisfaction, etc. Don’t read any cynicism into that last sentence. I think Lean is very cool. I’ve read a lot about it and heard many Lean “practitioners” talk about it. I think it’s got amazing potential to help us make improvements that will benefit our staff and our customers. But I’m reluctant to jump into the deep end of the Lean pool. I’m not a strong swimmer.

Too often, we managers get caught up in the excitement of a new management idea. I’ve been guilty of it. To the skeptical employee, it can sound like the boss said, “I just went to a conference of heart surgeons. The things they do save lives! It’s amazing. We gotta get some that in this organization.” The staff has good reason to be nervous.


I don’t want to cut my workgroup’s chest open until I fully understand what this Lean stuff is all about. I have some hesitation picking up the Lean scalpel for several reasons.

  1. Lean may not work here culturally. Our organization has a long proud tradition of being decidedly “not Lean.” There’s a lot of inertia to overcome. But, it can be done. We can change the culture, but it will take a long time and enormous commitment from all levels of management and staff. It may also require significant changes in who works here. One of the most inspiring “Lean leaders” I’ve seen explained he had to replace a large portion of his workforce to get the culture change he wanted. That’s not easy, pleasant, desirable, or even feasible.
  1. Lean is not a panacea. It won’t solve all our problems, which makes it hard to commit to the culture change. However, I think it would solve a lot of problems. It’s a tricky cost-benefit analysis.
  1. Like heart surgery, Lean involves a specific set of skills that aren’t simple to learn and easy to carry out. Not everyone can do it, at least not without a lot of training and practice. In heart surgery, if you screw up you kill someone. In Lean, the stakes aren’t quite as high, but when you screw it up, you can destroy credibility and confidence.

These are serious considerations that cause me to be less than zealous in my approach to Lean. Here’s my Lean rallying cry for my staff:

“I believe in Lean. I’m convinced that organizations that have adopted it have made huge strides. However, I don’t fully understand how it works, and I’m uncomfortable asking you to follow me. You have every right to be skeptical. I do want to keep talking about it, learning about it, and maybe trying some of the ideas out. I hope you are intrigued, too, so we can learn about it together.”

Not too inspiring, I know. I’m no JFK. While I don’t want to perform Lean heart surgery on my group, I am going to encourage us, metaphorically, to improve our diet and get some exercise. Maybe we’ll get a little leaner.

What do you think? Should we just cut ‘em open and hope it works out?


5 thoughts on “Leaning

  1. Reblogged this on The Lowly Bureaucrat and commented:
    Todd and I are lucky enough to work together – I think he said it very well. One of my observations after more than 15 years in our organization is that staff are weary of the “new thing” brought in by the new set of leaders we get every 4 – 8 years. Most of it is a redux of the same thing packaged a different way forcing all of us to learn a new vocabulary or in the case of lean a new language – Kaizen – any one?
    But I agree, there are benefits to be had and improvements to be made. I wish we were focusing more on solving problems for the sake of solving them then desperately looking for things to “lean” for the sake of lean.
    Every team is different and we will keep looking for the approach that works.
    Great post!

  2. Well since I’m someone you work with I would really prefer you not cut me open so you can hopefully fix something. That being said the lean process has great potential, I personnally feel that instead of trying to solve the whole problem at once it should be in small steps. People have have an inherent fear of change…they could lose their job and management can tell them that won’t happen but we all know the possibility is there.

  3. For what it’s worth, and as my first dabble into WordPress, I’d say don’t drag them kicking and screaming into the operating theatre. To try and continue the healthcare analogy…nope a stretch too far for me today.

    I must say I love Lean, I think the principles are great; the way it pulls lots of management tools together into a coherent toolkit is fantastic; having the creativity to apply it in varied business environments is fun. The flip side of that is the buzzword itself or rather the fact ‘Lean’ has become one..

    I suppose one question to ask is do you want the language of Lean or to empower the team to think within the principles of Lean. I prefer the latter because otherwise you risk changing some of the cultural elements of the organisation that have made it successful so far.

    When I’ve embedded the principles of lean in an organisation, I hope I haven’t, described it as Lean in the first instance because to do so might be scary for the guys I’m working with. I’ve described it as “a set of tools to make it easier to do what we do so we can do it better;” a clumsy phrase I grant you.

    Sherrie’s idea of small steps/bite-size chunks I agree with

    You’re bound to have some vocal people in the organisation who have frustrations about the hoops they have to jump through to get their work done. I’ve always started with that group, as they can often be the cynical type who will immediately oppose the new, best thing since sliced bread, buzzwordy management tool.

    Showing them that they are allowed to challenge, within boundaries, a bad i.e. wasteful process; get an understanding of what others do in a process; and to understand what their customer (internal/external) of them may provide you with a set of champions. A process that serves an internal customer is a great first start too as then you’ll have an advocate for the Voice of the Customer role as well who can say “it’s great that people listened to what I wanted etc.”

    From their ideas you’ll have a set of case studies you can use with people gradually upping the ante each time regarding the complexity of the tools and the level to which you use them.

    The DMAIC cycle, SIPOC diagram, Process Map and 7 wastes are all I normally start with. The number crunching side I’ll do with them as part of the standard business case approval process.

    Sorry. This was longer than I meant it to be and hope its useful to you. I’m curious to see how your journey goes as I’m just starting out with an entirely new team in a new sector so sure I’ll learn something from how you get on.

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