Guest Post – Lean Myth: Lean is Stressful for Workers


Mark's Note: Today's post is by David Veech, the Executive Director of the Institute for Lean Systems. A fear or anxiety that people often have when they hear the term “lean” is that it will be a stressful environment, sort of like the famous Lucy & Ethel chocolate factory scene. David writes about dispelling that myth…

First of all, let's be honest: Change is stressful.

When an organization introduces a new way of doing things – whether it's the lean way or some other new system – workers are going to be skeptical and concerned. After all, their jobs are at stake.

And telling workers that you're going to “empower” them doesn't help. To the average worker, empower means more responsibility with no more pay or control.   They've probably heard it before.

But lean can be different – when it's done with a systems focus.

Lean is a people-focused system based on a simple concept: No one knows the work better than the people who do it. Lean emphasizes educating and cross-training workers and letting those who are closest to the work design the system.

Reducing worker stress – Properly implemented, a lean transformation can reduce worker stress in a number of ways, such as:

Leveling the workload – In a typical work environment, work flow is erratic. Extremely stressful, busy periods are interspersed with slow, nonproductive stretches, during which time workers are bracing for the next crunch. Everyone seems either too busy or not busy enough. Lean focuses on getting the right things to the right place at the right time and in the right quantity to achieve smooth work flow. By leveling the workload, lean helps alleviate worker stress.

Standardizing work processes – A key feature of lean production is simplification and standardization of work procedures.  It's all about making the work easy to manage and understandable for employees.

Cross-training and providing job flexibility – Lean requires a multi-skilled workforce organized into teams, preferably self-directed. The opportunity to develop a wider range of skills increases job satisfaction and results in greater productivity.

Giving workers more control over the work – The key to lean transformation is giving workers the power to participate in decision-making and problem-solving. In a 1990 book,  The Machine that Changed the World (1990), the authors found that the “freedom to control one's work” replaced “mind-numbing” stress. In a lean environment, workers have the opportunity “to think actively, indeed proactively.”

All of this is not to say that lean transformation is easy. Successful transition to a lean system requires a strong commitment from top management and a deep understanding of lean principles and practices. Extensive education and training are needed at all levels.

But the results are well worth it.

For more information about how lean can help your organization, contact me at

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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. Lean -from my point of view and 35 year-long personal experience- is about creating the same or more value with less input, and stress is one form of input.

    During various change initiatives within the production line at BMW I all too often sensed that the workers had a favorite solution to lower their stress in mind, which often collided with other colleagues performance (mostly down the value stream).

    However finding the leverage point together with honest dialog and bringing short comings of certain solutions into open, in all cases we found and put into action changes that were highly appreciated by the workers – even done by themselves in a manner managers would like to see their folks work on their own.

    In processes that are highly flexible as at BMW where daily changes in the process are “program” (due to customer demand) a purely standardization approach will lead to a brick wall. Putting the larger view (similar as a wide-angle objective) of the system into focus will lead to better overall performance (most often with pretty little change effort per se).

    These are my 2-cents from Dresden, Ralf

  2. At IBM Benelux, a version of LEAN is being implemented called GDF (Global Delivery Framework). Snag is one of the IBM staffers is an ex-Toyota employee (from the Burnaston factory) who knows LEAN/Kaizen backwards, and can’t recognize IBM’s version as being anything to do with LEAN. IBM management were sent to London for a weeks GDF ‘boot camp’ but almost immediately it has become clear that IBM’s version of LEAN is just a shorter way of writing ‘offshoring’, with IBM’s obsession with transferring Western technology to India and Communist China being greater than any interest in improving efficiency.

  3. Richard – it’s too bad that IBM or others can do any dumb, foolish, or disrespectful thing while calling it “lean.” Nobody can send them a cease and disist, but we can call them out on it. Thanks for doing so.

  4. Going Lean can be stressful… like any change. But really the biggest challenge is getting employees to embrace the mindset and concept of Lean and impliment it. It does take a change in thinking… which isn’t easy for people to do if they have been doing a job a certain way for a long time. Also, people like continuity and it’s comforts… even if it’s not the best way of doing something… just because it’s the way they have always done it and it’s easy to them.

  5. It’s strange that the Lucy/Chocolate Factory scene quoted as ‘fear of lean’ when it’s that scenario is what lean is intended to prevent.

    Classic film of the issues of ‘push/pull’ and load leveling and we use this film to teach those concepts.

    On the ‘comfort’ issue – I will admit that many employees enjoy the chaos of their work as it gives them a sense of importance they would otherwise lack (because nobody appreciates their work).

    Standardising the work, steadily improving it and eventually getting rid of all the waste and moving humanity to a higher purpose…this may be Toyota but would also be more like Moses not entering the Promised Land – only those generations that come after us will understand why it is good to redefine work to being value rather than activity.

    • Richard – I think the “fear of lean” comes partly from those, for example in healthcare, who have never been inside a factory yet alone worked in one. They see pop culture images (even dated ones) from Lucy and Charlie Chaplain or even the movie “Gung Ho” and they assume factories are inherently stressful or are inherently bad workplaces.

      I often show the Lucy video in lean training as, again, the example of what we DO NOT want.

      Yes, some people enjoy the chaos if they get to always be the hero who is providing expediting or workarounds. That’s a familiar human dynamic in manufacturing OR healthcare.

      Thanks for your comment.

      • We have all enjoyed that candy dipping ‘I Love Lucy’ episode (for the detail inclined: Season 2, Episode 1: “Job Switching”, Air Date 9/15/52) in that clenched jaw, white-knuckle way and I am sure that your clients are equally moved while watching it.

        Just curious as to whether you show it to point out the lack of control of the process on the part of the worker, or to illustrate the need for proper training of the worker before placing them into the production environment?

        As I recall, there was a professional candy dipper in the scene who was able to dip the chocolates with such apparent ease.

        • Well, it was actually candy wrapping, if you want to be precise. Refresh your memory:

          I use it to emphasize the poor management system in the video, with points including:

          1) Lack of worker training (unfair to Lucy and Ethel)
          2) Lack of manager confirming that workers could do the job at the pace required
          3) Manager not being at “the gemba”
          4) Manager creating an environment of fear (do this or you’re fired), leading to Lucy & Ethel hiding problems and being afraid to ask for help
          5) Manager irresponsibly yelling “speed it up a little”

          Probably other points that could be made, but there’s five…

        • I think that the reasons you show the skit are important to workers.

          As an aside, the I Love Lucy wrapping segment was the final of three skits which began in the candy dipping room, ending in the expected chocolate fight; secondly in the boxing department with a bit less mayhem and with the finale coming in the wrapping department scene of the YouTube link. Sheesh, I am so old I watched it on a Philco TV set, first run.

  6. “Lean is a people-focused system based on a simple concept: No one knows the work better than the people who do it. Lean emphasizes educating and cross-training workers and letting those who are closest to the work design the system….”.

    Agree. And, so did Fred Taylor and his worker/subject “Schmidt”.

    Great post.

  7. Lean, as implemented by IBM in the form of GDF is simply a process whereby customers are alienated, accounts are lost, workers are hacked off, and the people who invented and implemented it are promoted for their incompetence. Then they’re fired. That right, Barbara?


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