Going Cheap Vs. Leading and Being Lean


Mark's note: Today's post is by Mark Edmondson. Far too many associate Lean with “being cheap” or they already have “be cheap” as a primary objective and they hope Lean will further that goal. I'm reminded of a cynical old General Motors expression: “We'll save money no matter how much it costs us.”

edmondsonI've worked with a lot of companies whose primary operational strategy boils down to “cut costs”. Others on Mark's blog have written about the many unintended consequences of cutting costs as a myopic strategy. But I'd like to share a trend among small manufacturers I've seen over the past decade: hiring employees who don't speak management's language. I don't mean they don't share common values, or agree eye-to-eye. I mean they are hiring employees who don't speak the English language when that's the primary, or even only, language management speaks.

For example, I recently visited a $15 million manufacturing firm that wanted my input about their Lean journey. As I typically do, I asked to attend the shift start up meeting and was delighted to learn they conduct those daily (many companies don't). When the director of operations joined me, I discovered two things: first, he didn't know the specific start time for the meeting (not a good sign); second, the meeting was conducted by the team lead in Spanish. I caught a few words (after all, I did study Spanish for four years in secondary school), but most of the meeting was unintelligible to the attending shift manager and director.

“How does this work for you?” I asked the shift manager.

“If I think I missed something, I ask the team lead afterwards” he replied.

“Why are you hiring employees who don't speak English?” I asked the director.

“Many applicants don't speak English, and they can do the job.” I could tell he was surprised by the question when he added with a smile, “Plus, they're more eager to accept the job at the wage we offer.”

So the company saves a bit on payroll, but what are the unintended consequences? As a Lean thinker, you can guess if this company is creating a culture of excellence, which of course, requires management's commitment to daily coaching, training and development. Is the savings in payroll really worth more than the ability to regularly and directly interact with employees about problem solving and continuous improvement? Or even understand what's going on during the daily start up?

And as a Lean thinker, I knew by 7:15AM on the first day the state of this company's Lean journey.

To their credit, after talking with their leadership this company implemented two counter-measures: First, they encouraged their management team to learn Spanish by reimbursing the cost of lessons at a local community college; Second, they offered current employees free on-site ESL lessons. Their longer term solution was to recognize the real value of job candidates who speak English.

Please don't misunderstand the message. This is not an affront to hiring minorities; I believe diversity of culture, background and thought can provide an organization with greater insight and innovation. But organizational insight and innovation is compromised if the organization can't communicate effectively.

This usually requires speaking the same language.

Mark Edmondson

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Mark Edmondson
Mark Edmondson is passionate about achieving rapid, breakthrough results during a company’s lean transformation. With 30 years of front-line experience while working with over 80 companies, Mr. Edmondson developed a philosophy of helping companies create a culture that sustains operational excellence through low cost yet transformative changes.


  1. Simple but true. Nice post. If an organization can´t communicate properly, how are they going to follow the same path? It is really common that managers don´t know what time he staff meeting is. Or even worst, they don’t even know what topics are being treated there. Those small things can really tell if your organization is going in the right direction or pretends to.


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