LEAN is NOT “Less Employees Are Needed” – and LEAN is NOT about cost ‘cutting.’

LEAN is about continuous improvement of all processes to eliminate waste (and therefore improve efficiency) to flow greater value to the customer’ while engaging and developing the people in the work

Lean is an operational strategy that delivers the business strategy. It is a SYSTEM that creates greater ‘FLOW’ of value to the customer.

Taylor and Ford were very important because they brought ‘scientific management’ concepts (objective, data-driven, measures to improve efficiency of the work) and standardization / standard work to the world – with the understanding that no improvement can be made until a standard is established. Some think that Taylor and Ford’s perspective of the worker may have been misguided – and therefore required tough guys for supervisors (Ford) to ensure compliance (compulsion) to the standards, quotas, and the like. Management for results. The workers were not allowed (thought not capable) to think.    

Our world has changed dramatically since Taylor and Ford. Now, high-level literacy is assumed in our workplaces – that was NOT true in 1920. General education levels are much higher than in Taylor or Ford’s era (was less than 40%, now is nearly 100%). We have unlimited, immediate access to information. Automation and digitization are common. Artificial intelligence is real, and here, now! Consumer expectations are much higher. Logistical systems are supremely reliable, and fast. It may be unfair to compare today to 1915 – or 1980!   

Furthermore, employee expectations are growing. We expect very safe, comfortable work environments and enlightened leaders that have evolved beyond the command-and-control styles of yesterday.

We expect to be respected and to have the opportunity to be creative in our work. We want to work with our teams autonomously. We want to learn and grow and to do ‘good work’ that is valuable to the customer. This brings meaning and fulfillment to our lives. When this happens, it not only improves our organizations’ position on the industry frontier, but we also carry that positive energy and feeling back to our homes and our communities where a ripple-effect occurs, making the world a better place in general.   

Unfortunately, for many of our organizations, the leadership approach to the work, has NOT changed or evolved sufficiently since the 1920’s – 1980’s era of “Management By Objective” and ‘big boss knows all’ environments.

In my opinion, our leadership thinking has not kept pace with the exponentially changing world. Our leadership mindset is still, largely, stuck in the command-and-control paradigm that assumes workers just want to slack off, are uneducated, illiterate, and we must “watch them closely” or nothing will get done correctly. Or the leader is not enlightened to the changing world and still feels power in bullying behaviors.

Make no mistake, accountability is critical to success and it is the leader / operations manager’s responsibility to ensure the work gets done, with good quality, in the most efficient manner possible. Better, in fact, when a team works to hold each other accountable without a boss doing it for them. But we think the only way to get ‘accountability’ is to be ‘tough,’ be ‘mean’ or a bully and demand results!  We make threats and talk to our people in disrespectful tones, directing and telling people what to do. We manage for results, only. 

If leaders could follow the principles of lean, we will find our organizations become more productive, workers more autonomous, and accountability would be built into the work. And daily management / visual management environment would be in place where the workers, together, can see normal from abnormal, and take corrective action as needed to maintain the work to standard – and make improvements. 

Telling people to ‘do better’ is not sufficient.  It is woefully inadequate, and lazy, when leaders ‘solve problems’ by telling people what to do – to ‘make quality products’ or ‘get the order delivered on time’ or ‘solve that defect problem’ … our intelligent and creative workers know better. Instead, the lean leader must go to the ‘Gemba’ and work alongside the people in the process to improve it.  They need to become coaches. They give a meaningful challenge that is tied to the vision of the company, and coach people in problem solving, standardized work, daily management, teamwork, and continuous improvement.   

The only way to deliver greater value to the customer is through improving the processes that deliver that value (elimination of loss, or waste). And most of the non-value work (waste) is in-between the value-added work processes. If that is true, then the people working those processes should be our primary concern as leaders and operations managers.

The pivotal question then, is how do you, as a leader, engage with the value-creators, to work together, to improve those value-adding processes, and eliminate more of the NON-value-added processes? 

I hope you will reflect deeply on this issue and work to improve yourself (Kaizen!) and manage yourself, to become a more effective leader.  If you do, then I encourage you to read these two articles.  Print them and put them in your leadership journal.  You may come back to them as references in a couple of decades, like have done just now.  


https://hbr.org/product/managing-oneself-harvard-business-review-classics/2312-PBK-ENG (Links to an external site.)

http://8tharmy.korea.army.mil/501MI/content/reading-list/Message-to-Garcia-LPD.PDF (Links to an external site.)

I hope this shines a light on this very serious issue, that LEADERSHIP is about how we engage the people and create work environments where the workers are empowered to improve the work and accountability are built into the work of the team.

We Lead Change. We lead people.

We manage things, data, equipment, MRP, ERP, processes, etc.

MANAGEMENT is about being objective in how we measure performance, managing things (budgets, plans, data, machines, office space, physical work environments, etc.) (Taylorism).  We manage complexity. 

LEADERSHIP is about influencing others to move towards a common, shared objective – to achieve some advantage. VIRTUOUS Leadership requires commitment, courage, candor, consistency, and contentment (a spirit of joy and abundance mindset). 

If we do this well – LEAD PEOPLE and MANAGE THINGS – we can improve our position on the efficient frontier and earn a competitive advantage. Then, we can be confident in our organizational values that respects people by avoiding labor reductions – and instead reassign people to other value-added work when we are able to make efficiency improvements in an area that requires less labor.

Give the people a challenge (Lean Value) and support them in the work to make things better. That is real respect.

In the spirit of Kaizen, I challenge you to IMPROVE YOURSELF, so you are a better leader and manager.  


Serious Joy

I am a lean leadership and transformation coach. I am honored and privileged to help leaders and their teams do their work better.  The work is serious, but we approach it with a spirit of joy. 

We were made for adventure, purpose, passion, discomfort, and problem solving. If we first start with an attitude of JOY, we will find the discipline necessary to combat the demons and breach obstacles that leads to our full purpose. 

SO, gather your team – get real about where you are, how you are going to work together. Create a vision of excellence that you can strive toward together. And pick up the spirit of Serious Joy and start climbing… It’s demon repellent. 


Keep Smiling. Keep Striving.


Jesse DePriest

Lean Leadership and Transformation Coach

Related Articles