The Role of Purpose and Your Role


What is your role at work? Your purpose? Those questions might make you really stop and think.

I sat in yesterday on a class, taught by an ex-Toyota leader, that raised a number of thought-provoking questions about Lean and the development of people.

David Verble, a former Toyota North America H.R. and O.D. manager, teaches a number of Lean Enterprise Institute workshops including one called “Developing People with Capability for Lean.” David facilitated the workshop at a hospital and I was fortunate to sit in.

Drawing on his Toyota experience, Verble emphasized how the primary role of a manager is to develop people, to really coach and develop them – not just tell them what to do.

One of the key points was the focus on purpose, not tools. As I have said before, the main objective is not to “implement Lean,” the point is to improve your organization, develop people, and meet customer needs.   He asked:

“Do you want employees just performing to task or performing to purpose?”

Are you just laying bricks or are you building a cathedral? You want people to understand their purpose, not just their job description or the tasks that are assigned to them.   This is very similar to Jim Womack's “Purpose, Process, People” model. Your “role” (what you are responsible for) is more than your task assignments:

Managers play a critical role in making sure people understand this sense of purpose.

Part of that is to help people understand their roles — emphasizing that sense of purpose so people are motivated to do the right things. You can control people – command and control is not a workable model. You have to create systems and processes and encourage kaizen. And these systems (or standardized work) don't mean that we stop thinking, as Verble said:

“Standardization doesn't mean routinizing everything.”

This is true in manufacturing and in healthcare.

Think about your own job – the fact that you have a job is not an “end,” it's a means for your organization to accomplish a goal. How connected do you feel to that goal? One person at the hospital said she really had trouble articulating her purpose — and that meant she needed to have a talk with her manager SOON.

I'm lucky that my job at the Lean Enterprise Institute fits into a strong sense of purpose. Our purpose is try help make the world lean. My role, specifically, is to further the purpose of spreading lean in healthcare and helping our network members and the broader healthcare community move down the Lean path. I can only do so much as one individual, but if the things I'm doing aren't aligned with that purpose than I (and the LEI) would have a problem.

Can you articulate your purpose? Is that important to you? Do you suspect it's important to others in your organization?

What do you think? Please scroll down (or click) to post a comment. Or please share the post with your thoughts on LinkedIn – and follow me or connect with me there.

Did you like this post? Make sure you don't miss a post or podcast — Subscribe to get notified about posts via email daily or weekly.

Check out my latest book, The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation:

Get New Posts Sent To You

Select list(s):
Previous articleAn Article about Lean Design and Construction for Hospitals
Next articleJohn Toussaint Blog Posts & Interview
Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Great post.

    Knowing the purpose or “why” behind your role and any tool is vital. People think 5S for example is easy, so that’s where they begin. But getting everyone aligned to the “why” of 5S is not so easy, and without it, 5S will fail.

    I believe one of the strongest things any individual can do is develop an ideal state for their own job, define what perfection would look like. It doesn’t mean you’ll implement it or turn it into a project, but it’s extremely valuable to have that filter as you look at the things you do.

    Having purpose or a why is, I believe, a vital part of success. I was influenced many years ago by Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. There is also a recent book out by Simon Sinek called Start with Why. I recommend both.
    .-= Jamie Flinchbaugh ´s last blog ..Leaders or Anchors? =-.

  2. Does anyone have the key to overcoming a fundamental shift in worker attitude within which the workers really aren’t seeking to be a part of the greater and lofty vision of the organization.

    We have fought this shift for the past three years with every means available to us in the world of manufacturing: keggers; offers to pay for continuing education or even college; inclusion in strategic meetings about issues facing our company; merit bonuses for achieving their targets- anything, everything we could think of.

    The workers basically thanked us for choosing good beer; never applied for any continuing education; fell asleep during the strategy sessions; stated that achieving the merit targets wasn’t worth the effort and vacated our property each afternoon with heartfelt gusto.

    In the past thirty years, people we deal with have truly changed. In the early years I remember young guys coming up and asking for advice on how to rise to a higher level in the company and for the most part, they followed the prescription.

    Today, the jobsite seems to be little more than an interlude, or disruption, to more important things in the worker’s life.

    I have 5-Why’d this to death and have no answer.
    .-= Jefferson Martin/synfluent ´s last blog ..Process Model Menace =-.

  3. Jefferson – Thanks for sharing that, including the idea that you’ve looked for root cause. Maybe it’s nothing wrong with your organization and nothing wrong with your people.

    I believe in the idea that everyone wants to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Maybe the “something” for your people is something other than your organization and its mission. Again, I don’t mean that as knock on you (I’m sure it’s a perfectly fine place to work), but maybe it’s a matter of fit.

    It might be too late for some folks, but can that be a part of the hiring process – testing to see if people can be excited about, or at least aligned, with your organization’s purpose?

  4. Hi Mark, great blog. I did notice however that I became restless when I read: ” Our purpose is try help make the world lean.”

    Don’t you run the risk that the means (lean principles and methods) become the goal if you state it like that? I’d say something like ‘try to help the world create more value and reduce waste by applying the lean principles and methods”.

    What do you think?

    .-= Marc Rouppe van der Voort ´s last blog ..Toyota in trouble =-.

  5. Mark,

    I had a similar feeling to Marc when I read

    “As I have said before, the main objective is not to “implement Lean,” the point is to improve your organization, develop people, and meet customer needs.”

    but then further down read the seemingly contradictory,

    “Our purpose is try help make the world lean.”

    I think Marc above has suggested a good alternative, so I will not try to better it.


  6. Marc and Rob-

    Great point. I was somewhat speaking in shorthand, which I should be careful about.

    “To make the world lean” has a lot of depth behind it that I didn’t articulate.

    The LEI front page says:

    “Our Mission: Advance lean thinking throughout the world” But that’s not the same as purpose.

    The LEI mission page is here

    But that’s not “purpose” either. Maybe that’s a good exercise for us to go through and articulate on the web, as well.

    To me, “making the world lean” means the purpose of teaching people methods they can use to engage the staff in improvement of quality, safety, productivity, and long-term corporate vitality (for the sake of a healthy economy and society). A “lean world” would have high-quality services and goods, available when needed, where needed, produced with minimal waste. A lean world would have happy, engaged employees, which is good for companies and society. I think that purpose is very well aligned with LEI’s, so I’m happy working there. If I were in a place where the only purpose were short-term profits and enriching the executives, that’s not so fulfilling.

    I should write what I mean rather than making people infer it, I suppose :-)

    Thanks for the questions and for allowing me to elaborate (and thanks for not assuming I’m a dolt who wants to see lean done for lean’s sake — that’s certainly not my mission or LEI’s).

  7. Mark: Thanks for the great post.
    Jamie: Excellent comment.
    Jefferson Martin/synfluent: Sounds like you have been appealing to mostly extrinsic motivators, rather than creating an environment which nurtures intrinsic motivation. As authors like Daniel Pink and Alfie Kohn have warned us, extrinsic motivators can kill intrinsic motivation. What you may have unintentionally been “teaching” your employees is that their work is not rewarding in and of itself, so you will reward them with what’s really worthwhile: free beer, free college, merit bonuses, etc. It’s like offering kids ice cream if they first finish eating their spinach. Subtle message: Spinach tastes bad, ice cream tastes good; it’s the ice cream that is rewarding, so let’s get through the horrible but necessary spinach first. Kids then won’t eat the spinach on their own when there is no one around to offer them a reward for doing so and will genuinely believe spinach does taste terrible. What you’re doing is also manipulation, and employees who sense this will feel like you are trying to control them, and will become demotivated. Furthermore, if you believe “the jobsite seems to be little more than an interlude, or disruption, to more important things in the worker’s life,” then you will selectively perceive events that “confirm” your belief, and react in ways that will likely create that very attitude in the workers. I.e., it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, or what some fancily call the Pygmalion Effect. As for falling asleep in strategy sessions: that may be an honest and natural response to a boring situation.

  8. Simon Ellberger: My employees are underground coal miners whose average educational level is roughly tenth grade in high school.

    These are not habitues of office campus cubicles who can be lead to the well of some self-enlightenment with slogans or the works of great authors.

    My thirty-three years as a business owner leave me perplexed and frightened with the fundamental, negative change in the work ethic in the nation.

    At least where I make payroll every Friday.
    .-= Jefferson Martin/synfluent ´s last blog ..Purpose and Paradigm Shifts =-.

  9. Jefferson – maybe engagement and fulfillment are not going to come through slogans (Deming would certainly say that slogans won’t help), but through leadership.

    Their lack of education shouldn’t mean they don’t want to be connected to their work. Did you see the pride in work from the person who cleaned porta-potties on the first episode of CBS “Undercover Boss”?

    Where did that come from? Definitely not from a slogan…

    I think Simon made some really good points to think about above. Have you really talked with your people or are you making assumptions? Your statement about their education level leads me to think you aren’t really engaging with them 1×1, you’re making assumptions.

  10. […] The Role of Purpose and Your Role by Mark Graban – “Are you just laying bricks or are you building a cathedral? You want people to understand their purpose, not just their job description or the tasks that are assigned to them. This is very similar to Jim Womack’s ‘Purpose, Process, People’ model. Your ‘role’ (what you are responsible for) is more than your task assignments” [great post – John] […]

  11. People will stop becoming bystanders when they can actually do the things they think should be done to improve their workplace on their own initiative. I’ve seen over and over again how excited people get when they get this opportunity.
    Most places hourly people don’t participate because they are used to being told what to do, having to get permission to maybe try even something pretty small, and getting jumped on if they do do something, even the right thing, without permission.
    Getting people together and telling them what you plan to do to them when it’s evident that there’s nothing they can do about it, won’t do much to get them involved. Asking for input when all the decisions have been pretty much made isn’t involvement. Folks are used to this and won’t offer much except perhaps voicing frustration (if they feel it won’t get them in too much trouble, although they know it will probably get them on someone’s negative radar.)
    Command and control by the “smart” people is still pretty standard today. And when it seems like a college degree is the entry level to any kind of decision making activity, most people know they can’t get there anytime soon, and will give up and do what they feel they have to do to keep their jobs.
    The only way I’ve seen work is to let folks actually do things to make improvement. Give them the help they need to do it rather than telling them what to do. And if it doesn’t work, well the next effort will be better, and you’ve got some real positive energy going for you (and them).


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.