Lean Management – What are the traits?

Lean Management - What are the Traits?

Sometimes we are told by our customers that they are eager to learn from us;

Lean Management

senior engineer and newly hired employee

  • learn the techniques of lean management,
  • learn the continuous improvement processes,

and often we go about our roles ensuring they have the correct tools and techniques to go forth and banish waste from their business.

Nonetheless, how often do we stop to think about the true nature of lean management & a lean manager,

  • How should they conduct themselves?
  • What are the traits of a true lean thinking manager?
  • How might a lean manager act?

Well I’m not going to claim we have the answers but we came across this a couple of weeks ago by Jim Womack* in which he ponders what gives managers a lean state of mind and he comes up with four traits, which we have been given permission to re-produce below.

Lean Management - What does those with experience say?

Click “The Mind of the Lean Manager” to read the whole of the article published by Jim Womack.

In it Jim shares some of his recent experiences of the application of lean tools so it helps set the scene for what comes below.

So what does Jim Womack mean by a lean state of mind?

First, the lean manager eagerly embraces the role of problem solver. This means going to see the actual situation, asking about the performance issue, seeking the root cause, and showing respect for lower-level managers and for colleagues at the same organizational level by asking hard questions until good answers emerge. It’s this critical, probing state of mind that permits lean tools to be put to good use as the lean manager applies the right tool for the specific problem and does this in context on the gemba rather than in the abstract in some conference room. Empty ritual is replaced with a rigorous thought process that engages employees and pulls forward their best abilities.

Second, the lean manager realizes that no manager at a higher level can or should solve a problem at a lower level. (And one of the worst abuses of lean tools lies in trying to do just this.) Instead, the higher-level manager can assign responsibility to a manager at a lower level to tackle the problem through a continuing dialogue, both with the higher-level manager and with everyone actually touching the process causing the problem. The lean law of organizational life is that problems can only be solved where they live, in conversation with the people whose current actions are contributing to the problem. But this requires support, encouragement, and, yes, relentless pressure, from the higher-level lean manager.

Third, the lean manager believes that all problem solving is about experimentation by means of Plan Do Check Act. No-one can know the answer before experiments are conducted and the many experiments that fail will yield valuable learning that can be applied to the next round of experiments.

Finally, the lean manager knows that no problem is ever solved forever. Indeed, the introduction of a promising countermeasure is sure to create new problems at some other point in the organization. This is not bad. It is good, provided the critical, probing mind of the lean manager keeps on the case in pursuit of perfection.

In short the traditional manager is usually passive, going through rituals and applying standard remedies to unique problems. By contrast, inside the mind of the lean manager lies a restless desire to continually rethink the organization’s problems, probe their root causes, and lead experiments to find the best currently known countermeasures. When this lean mindset is coupled with the proper lean tools amazing things are continually possible.”

Now if you have any thoughts on this I’ll happily take them via the comments section on the blog or you could always visit www.lean.org and send Jim your feedback, these are his thoughts on lean management, we’re trying to highlight them to our audience. Whilst you’re there have a good look round it a great source of lean thoughts and ideas and you might want to sign up Jims e-letters, it’s where we found this!

* – James P. Womack

Management expert James P. Womack, Ph.D., is the founder and chairman of the Lean Enterprise Institute, chartered in August 1997 as a nonprofit research, education, publishing, and conferencing company with a mission to advance lean thinking around the world.


This post first appeared on our theleanmanager blog on the 20th August 2009.

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