Leading Lean A-Z


by Jamie Flinchbaugh, co-author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to Lean

Decades of knowledge in lean have been passed on, written down, turned into curriculums and even documented in the annual reports of some companies. But why do so many fail to achieve the potential of lean? When I speak at diverse industry conferences or programs, I ask who is doing something about lean and who is wildly successful. Unfortunately, both based on those surveys and my own observations, the rate of companies succeeding at lean is probably around 1 %. This is far too low.

What is the differentiator? It is far too complicated to suggest one answer, however if there were one answer, the one that has universal agreement is LEADERSHIP. Lack of leadership, or lousy leadership, can prevent any organization from moving forward, and it can be blamed for many failures beyond lean including the slew of corporate ethics collapses.

Why present Leading Lean concepts in A through Z. Well, if I didn't limit it to the 26 letters of the alphabet, I would probably never finish the project. Here I will actually start with Z. Enjoy.

Z: Be a Zealot

What is a zealot? Defined, it is a person who is fanatical and uncompromising in pursuit of their religious, political and other ideals. If I were to only pick one single leadership trait, it would not be zealotry.

Being a zealot can have both a good side and a bad one. In isolation, zealotry can be narrow-minded, blind, unforgiving and ultimately destructive to the objective. Zealotry must be balanced with pragmatism, partnership and a focus on others' real needs and perceptions. With the right balance, being a zealot is a critical component of leading lean.

The obvious reason for being a zealot is to convince others. But a less obvious reason is that if you're not a zealot, it is too easy to give up. A zealot spends most of his or her days frustrated. Why? Because not everything is the way you think it should be, and not everyone thinks the way you think they should either.

If you are not frustrated, you are probably not working on the right problem. Being a zealot helps you keep your focus and direction through that very frustration. Without it, you may focus on what is easy and doable, instead of the important, right and seemingly impossible things. To accomplish big goals you must be deeply committed to what you are pursuing.

Being a zealot helps you win others to your cause. The passion you show in your words and actions has many benefits. If you were pursuing something just because it was assigned to you, you would find it hard to show real passion. Passion and zeal can be contagious. People want to believe in something. They want passion, and will never jump in with both feet if they don't think they'll feel that same passion. And perhaps most importantly, when you become a zealot you never again deliver a canned speech or presentation. You speak from the heart. You speak from experience. You own the idea.

To be a zealot you first must become one and then must sustain that role. The first can take some time, but the second takes forever. To become a zealot takes belief, which comes only through experience. Don't attempt to become a zealot without experience because that leads to the kind of unbalanced zealotry that can be dangerous. To become a zealot you have to start with the head. Is getting it into your head the same as experience? You have to get the ideas, language, and knowledge in there. You have to learn it. Then, you must get it into your hands. What about your heart? That is the real test. Lean begins with you.

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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. Jamie, do you see the level of zealotry fade in lean folks over time? Does this depend on whether you are having success or not? I would assume success would only reinforce the belief in lean, strengthening the zealotry. Does zealotry help get you through the frustrating times when burnout might otherwise set in? You’re right, this lean work is hard and frustrating sometimes. I need a break from it once in a while… that doesn’t mean my zealousness has faded, but that I’m human and I get worn out.

  2. Yes, zealotry can wear out over time. That’s a real challenge, and for folks that are willing to push no matter what, losing the edge can be a big loss for the company. There are a couple of things to keep in mind. A zealot is always focused on the challenge ahead. Sometimes you have to look back and realize the progress that has been made. It is often further progress than the zealot easily recognizes. Another thing that can help is changing your role. Maybe go from a support role to a line role, or from supporting one team to another. If you’re pushing a boulder, sometimes pushing from a different angle can be quite refreshing. Finally, make sure you have a mentor, someone that can help you pull back when you need to and to see the progress when you need to. But its all worth it. Progress is rarely made without a little zealotry to get past the inertia.

  3. Jamie –

    When will you “publish” this brief?? I’d jump on the chance to own a copy!

    Speaking from experience, it is often frustrating as a zealot to see a facility not moving as quickly as we desire. You are absolutely correct with your statement that you have to look back and realize the progress. I have the luxury of visiting other facilities in our organization, led by other Lean leadership, on a regular basis. While I am there to assist them, it also gives me an opportunity to take back good ideas they have developed AND see how we are progressing compared to the rest of our organization. That often helps me refocus and restores my zealotry for my “home” facility.

  4. Thank you for sharing Mike. I will at least post all of them here, but have discussed once complete publishing them as a small booklet for a small price. We’ll see!


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