Guest Post: The Secret to Lean is Saying No


Mark's note: Yes, I'm still on vacation. I'm very thankful for my cadre of guest bloggers, including today's guest, Jeff Hajek. Jeff is an active blogger at his site “Gotta Go Lean” and he is the author of the book  Whaddaya Mean I Gotta Be Lean? Building the bridge from job satisfaction to corporate profit, a very practical guide for front-line staff and supervisors.

I hope you enjoy today's guest post from Jeff about things you should say “no” to… here's his post:

The Secret to Lean is Saying No

Lean is about a can-do attitude. It is about optimism. It is about trusting that the PDCA system of problem solving works. It is about having faith that improving flow will yield lowers costs, faster delivery, and higher quality.

The little known secret, though, is that Lean also requires a healthy dose of saying “No” to be effective.

Say No to Excuses: There is always a reason why something will not work. Don't let those reasons become excuses that derail an improvement. Find a way to overcome the obstacles.

Say No to Crutches: Lean can make people nervous because it takes away safety nets. The biggest example is inventory. With ample piles of parts everywhere, there is no urgency to improve processes. As that cushion is reduced, improvement becomes a necessity.

Say No to Projects: One challenge you are unlikely to face in Lean is finding enough projects to do. The hard part is selecting the best things to work on first. When resources are scarce, choosing a higher priority project can mean axing a lower value one.

Say No to Inertia and Complacency: People like to bask in the glory of their success. Unfortunately, your competitors aren't doing that, so you can't take too long to celebrate your victories. Lean requires a relentless pursuit of waste.

Say No to Silence: Change is hard for most people. It is easier when there is a lot of communication. Some people have blinders on when they are making improvements, though, and forget to talk to the people whose lives they are changing. Ask. Listen. Repeat.

Say No to Variation: People like flexibility in how they perform their work. Doing a repetitive job can be boring, so people like to mix things up a little. Unfortunately, that adds quality-busting variation. Focus on keeping processes consistent, but offer other ways to beat boredom. Job rotation, kaizen projects, and training are all alternative ways to battle monotony.

Say No to Barriers and Silos: Think in terms of the value stream. When people focus on functional groups, they drift towards solutions that favor local improvements rather than global optimization. Make sure you know what upstream and downstream customers are doing so changes don't hurt them.

Each of these “No's” injects waste into the continuous improvement process. All this waste consumes scarce resources, making your gains smaller than they could be.

As you continue on your Lean journey, pay special attention to the items on the list above. Look for instances where you should be saying “No” to the things that are holding back progress.

I'd love to hear your thoughts about the items on this list and any others you think should be added to it.


About the author: Jeff Hajek is a Lean consultant and the author of the book, Whaddaya Mean I Gotta Be Lean?, which was a finalist in the 2009 National Best Books Awards. He also publishes a free online Lean reference guide, The Continuous Improvement Companion.

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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. Good post, Jeff!
    To show you how right you are when saying “Just say no” – here’s where I should have said “no” yesterday:
    An operator on the shop floor broke a handle of a machine (for adjusting something). He came to me with the info that I would have to buy a new one. I wanted to start 5W and find out the root cause, but the project manager told me to hold it, since “things just happen” – the new handle wouldn’t cost too much, would it?
    NO NO NO – things don’t just happen, there’s a reason to everything :-)

  2. Great post Jeff. I think one of the hardest is the “Say no to projects”. I have seen people try to justify working on a project because it is so near and dear to them. I try to communicate “not yet” more than a “no”. But some projects need to be a NO forever!

  3. Say No to Excuses, was likely my favorite. It particularly seems to rear its head, that is if each of the items where the head of a hydra, when working on a project that encompasses the boundaries of various departments. This, unfortunately, is probably the one that either occurs the most (for me) or just irritates me the most (thus I notice it more)–not sure which just yet.

    Beyond that, solid points and I’ll be referencing this in the future.

  4. DL,

    The excuses one is my favorite as well. I used to carry an index card around with a list of the top excuses on it. When people would tell me one of the standard ones (our demand is too variable, our customers don’t like it that way, etc), most of the time I had it on my list. Of course, I had to have the story about overcoming the excuse at the ready. Seeing that others had solved the same issues seems to make people more willing to attempt a resolution themselves.

    Thanks to everyone else leaving comments as well. I appreciate your thoughts.


  5. Jeff,

    can you post that list + the standard responses? Maybe the list can use it? At least -I- would love to have such an index card :-)


  6. Jeff, that was a great blog about headaches that we all deal with (plus a great throwback to Nancy Reagan:). Saying ‘no’ is hard to do sometimes and can come off as not being a team player. That is why when you say no (in any of the categories above) you must explain the why also. Without the why, people may jump to you just being a jerk or not a team player, but add the why and the education of the business grows.

    No excuses and no crutches are the ones that strike home the most because I seem to hear those every day. It is the hardest part of change management but once they learn to live without the excuses and crutches it is very rewarding.


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