More Lean Q&A


Here is the final installment of the lean Q&A, but if you have more questions, please feel free to comment here and I'll post the best attempt at answers here. Here was lean Q&A batch one and batch two.

Q: How does one learn to be a lean leader?

A: My first suggestion is to kick out the crutch. What I mean is to develop as a lean leader you need to leave your comfort zone and it helps if you have something to force you out of that comfort zone. A crisis will do that but you can't create a false crisis so you might find another way. Take on a new role that you are not really prepared for, sign up for a near-impossible challenge or remove whatever security blankets you have around your process. Next you have to begin by applying lean to your own work. Between what you learn and what you demonstrate, only by practicing lean on your own work will you become an effective lean leader. You must be a learner first. Lean is about how an organization learns, but organizations are made up of people, so how people learn will drive the success of lean. Regularly experiment and reflect on your own work. Finally, engage people from where they are and help them move forward to their own idea of progress. Don't stand in a field asking for everyone to join you. Don't ask people to make an impossible leap. Don't ask them to give up their own pursuits to join yours. Take your knowledge, skill and vision from lean and help the person move forward from where they currently are.

Q: Do you have any specific recommendations for an organization that is taking Lean to non-manufacturing operations?

A: The main reason lean has had so much more activity in manufacturing rather than business processes is that in general, manufacturing is much easier to see and much easier to measure. You can count parts coming off the end of the process by the minute and physically see a change as you make it. Also, in many organizations, manufacturing represents a large percentage of the overall population and cost. That being, lean has always applied to business processes, and that is nothing new. It's the ‘how' that matters most. First, don't just copy the manufacturing solutions. For example, if 5S is about organization your tools and materials so that you have what you need and can spot problems quickly, how does putting a label around your stapler and pencil contributing to that. You primary tool is information. Get that organization. Spot problems quickly – what's missing, what's out of place, what's a problem. Second, the concept of directly observing work is even more important and harder. You can't observe the process of “closing the books” like you can “load the machine.” You must develop the skills and principles of observation more deeply and make more strategic use of observation tools such as process mapping (and value stream mapping is rarely, but sometimes, the right mapping tool). Second, the concept of standardization is also harder and often rejected: “we don't do repetitive work.” Yes you do, the output just isn't standardized. Consider a legal contract review. That's a process. The size, issues, players and about two dozen other variables are always different, but the process you and the organization should go through can be standardized, just as an author has standard work for how they develop an idea into a final product. Finally, because business processes are inherently less visible, you have to work hard to make them visible. Develop signals, triggers, metrics and visual management for how the work is done. The visibility is so that you can see problems as they occur and see improvements as you make them. This is challenging work, but the standard is still the same – to be able to walk into an area and tell it's status at a glance, and know what is needed.

Q: Why does Toyota share what they do so openly?

A: First, I do not really know the answer, I can only really speculate based on conversation and observation. It may very well be that they regret going as far as they have in this regards, I don't know for sure. But first, I believe that they know that the real essence of what they are all about cannot be copied. You can copy tools, but you cannot copy how people think. We have always said that lean is not born from what you see but from how we think. It's easy to copy the stuff you see at Toyota. Hundreds of companies have walked their lines, seen something powerful like the andon cord. They measure how high to make, what color to make the lights and what music to play. But the dance of engagement between the team member, the customer, and the team leader, the supplier of help, that is understood in how they think about that work. You can't copy thinking, and Toyota knows this. Second, I believe they get better at understanding themselves with every tour, every visitor. Through the questions and need to articulate, it forces them to think more about what they do and how they do it. I believe this is the benefit for any company providing a tour. While your tour for your benefit, they benefit as well. I encourage one award-winning company who was going to host a tour for a conference to hand-out 3×5 cards and ask every visitor to leave them one idea to improve. Even if only 20 percent of them are worthwhile, imagine how useful that feedback can be if acted on.

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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. I think Jamie is spot on in his analysis of how to take lean to non-manufacturing operations.

    One other element that adds to the difficulty of making business processes lean is the misguided belief in “multi-tasking.” For so long people have been taught that “multi-tasking” is the key to managing the demands of the multiple value streams flowing through each person — and they’ve been given tools to encourage that behavior. (Think Blackberry, Instant Messaging, etc.)

    Workers on an assembly line don’t have the luxury of multi-tasking, of course. Lose your focus and you might lose your hand. . . or worse.

    Multi-tasking makes it so much more difficult to perform standard work. Like batch and queue, it’s seductive: you think you’re getting more done, even though you’re really undermining your own efficiency.

  2. Jamie, Thank you so much for your Q&A posts on the blog. Your insight is excellent! You are a wise Sensei to many you will never have the opportunity to meet. I had a room full of cross-functional people in the room for your IW event and they all shared these feeleings. Keep up the great work!


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