Lean Q&A


A few of you may know that a couple weeks ago I did a webcast for Industry Week. For those of you attended, thank you for the great comments. As part of it, the sponsor, Infor, asked me to answer some of the questions that came in during the event that we didn't have time for. Here is the first batch, which I thought I would share with all of you. Most of the questions were good – too good. Many of them deserve a real answer, not a blog answer. They deserve dialogue and engagement, not a paragraph. Unfortunately, I am stuck with this medium for this purpose. Please share your comments below.

Q: How do you assure LEAN Thinking is being applied by leadership?

A: By leadership, I assume you mean the executive ranks. You can not “assure” that at the end of the day, as each person controls their own thoughts and actions. You can only encourage, promote, coach and drive. Here are a few thoughts. First, manage expectations. This in part may mean lowering yours, but too often we place an expectation on leadership that they live up to lean principles every minute of every day with no lapses. Even might Toyota would not sign up to that. These are human beings, and mistakes will happen – OFTEN. Expect that they learn, try, engage and learn some more, but while you should pursue perfection, do not make the mistake of expecting it. Second, if leadership is to apply lean thinking then they must learn true lean principles and not just lean tools. No executive will ever change bottom line performance by putting a 5S shadowbox around their stapler. But standardizing their information flow, believing and practicing waste elimination, directly observing work are things that they can practice in their own role. Next, reinforce the right behaviors by making it visible. Too often I see leaders change their way but no one really gets to see the change because the leader does not talk about it. Talk about it. Make sure people see it, and understanding it. It is not enough to just change; if people don't understand it, they will not know how to emulate it. Finally, start to measure it. I don't mean with a metric, but either through shadowing, coaches or even more formal reviews, begin to articulate the behavior changes and evaluate their success. In the end, the war for people's minds and hearts will probably have a few casualties along the way of people who cannot exhibit what is being asked of them, but you have to give them a shot first. Some might surprise you.

Q: How do you measure culture?

A: I think a better question is how do you evaluate culture. People tend to resort to measurement being the only tool of evaluation, but it is just a tool. Sometimes it is the right tool and sometimes not. The most important thing to look at are the behaviors and actions that people take. If the right principles have stuck, then the right behaviors will be demonstrated. Of course this is hard, because you not only need to know the principles well but also what behaviors are and are not consistent with those principles. A notch easier but less robust is the language that the organization uses. The language is an indicator of the culture, but by no means a guarantee, as it will often be a leading-indicator of real change and can also be thrown about without people truly understanding. To truly measure, with metrics, a culture is easier to do but harder to indicate a real change in thinking. You can measure cultural attributes, but only as part of a portfolio of approaches.

Q: What is the general personality that you look in a lean leader?

A: That's a great question. I have begun to see more turnover in the ranks of full-time lean leaders at all levels which very much disturbs me. Too often, people are being selected for the wrong criteria. The #1 wrong criteria that is important but seems to be elevated above all else is technical knowledge of lean. This is important, but lean transformation is a people business, not just an implementation. Here are some other criteria that I would suggest. First, the person should be a learner, meaning they should engage, experiment, absorb, and seeks opportunity to learn at every corner. Also, the person should be as comfortable with executives as with shop-floor associates as lean change is often trying to make connections and engagement vertically through the organization. Third, the person must be a value-stream thinker, not just in terms of material flow, but having a broad understanding of the business. They have to have an appreciation for the customer, and how each element of the process serves that customer. Fourth, the person must have a vision, or at least strong desire to make things better. They do not need to be a visionary, single-handedly developing the future course of action for a business. But they have to be able to see a better world. Fifth, the person must be respected, but not for their knowledge of process, product or business but for who they are and how they work with others. If they are respected for being the hero-problem-solver, that will be a different role to break from. Sixth, although less important, the person should posses some upward mobility, some shown promise for advancement. However, sometimes the best lean leader is the very respected individual who is taking on their last role before retirement, which gives them more freedom to say and do what needs to be done, as they are no longer concerned about advancement. Finally, the person should be hands-on but not too hands-on. They must be a facilitator, not do it for people. If they can't facilitate it into place, they will just work around others which is not a good practice in lean transformation.

Q: How do you integrate lean and six sigma?

A: The first point is to understand that the inherent ideas of lean and six sigma do not conflict, despite the behaviors and rhetoric to the contrary. They can conflict, and often do, in execution or implementation, starting with the problem that many implementations of lean and six sigma are often disconnected. I wrote about this in my Assembly Magazine column Leading Lean, which you can read here. I think there are some guideposts to integrating lean and six sigma. First, as most companies do one practices first and then try to integrate the other into existing knowledge and practices, it is vital to understand that whatever you are now adopting, it is not “instead of” the other, it is “in addition to.” Second, make sure that your approach is based on principles, which we write about extensively in The Hitchhiker's Guide to Lean. If continuous improvement is based on principles, then people won't be thinking in terms of lean tools or six sigma tools. They will be thinking in terms of improvement, and will only reach for a tool as they see the need. Third, and finally, communication is vitally important. In general, I believe people under-communicate by a factor of 10 when it comes to change initiatives. When it comes to combining initiatives, it may be a factor of 20. While the leadership of the company, or the lean and six sigma change agents, understand very well how they fit together, the people who get it in bits and pieces do not. To them, what you think is complimentary they see or hear as conflicting. Communication is key.

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Jamie Flinchbaugh
Jamie Flinchbaugh is an accomplished Entrepreneur, Senior Executive, and Board Member with more than 20 years of success spanning finance, manufacturing, automotive, and management consulting. Leveraging extensive operational experience, Jamie is an invaluable asset for a company seeking expert guidance with process improvements, lean strategies, and leadership coaching in order to transform operations, reduce costs, and drive profitability. His areas of expertise include continuous improvement, entrepreneurship, coaching and training, process transformation, business strategy, and organizational design.


  1. Hi Jamie,

    thanks for that excellent post and I really hope that some executives will take the time to read it. It should open some people’s eyes;-))



  2. I agree with your comments re: Lean and Six Sigma. CI is all about making things better and when people simply focus on making things better companies will reap the true rewards these tools will deliver.


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