Lean Culture— The Secret Ingredient is Respect

Matthew Anderson
3 min readJun 27, 2022

The shift toward lean manufacturing is one of those trends that has completely dominated discourse within the industry for decades and with good reason. It provides an approach for the industry that is more efficient, more streamlined. It’s undoubtedly a key methodological shift that all manufacturers take seriously.

However, one of the most overlooked aspects of this transition is the impact that it has on people. Often we focus on new tools, methodologies, workflows, and processes — and we don’t spend enough time concerned with the human elements that come with it. In this article, I wanted to explore this side of lean manufacturing and show you why respect for people is such a crucial part of this equation.

Image by Lidia Tomashevskaya

Where Do We Get Things Wrong?

There are several common pitfalls where organizations can stray if they aren’t truly respecting their people. These include the following:

Talking too much, and doing too little. Lean manufacturing is a practice-based methodology and people will quickly lose trust in the process if the actions taken don’t back up the stated intentions. To maintain credibility, an organization must walk the walk — which respects the time and energy of those people who are being asked to shift to a new way of doing things.

Failing to formalize improvements and enshrine them in standard operating procedures. It’s easy to get carried away with new process innovations but if these aren’t codified in official company documentation then you’re going to run into problems. Respecting new employees and team members is about ensuring that the standard operating procedures reflect the current status of the company at all times.

An excessive focus on cost that focuses only on improvements and not on employees. If you only look at things through a financial lens, you risk alienating the very people that you rely on to make things happen. While cost savings are important, you still have to invest in a good work environment so that your team feels empowered to do their best.

Relying too heavily on outsiders. It often makes sense to outsource certain components of your lean manufacturing but you should always have the appropriate control and expertise in-house to achieve your objectives. This empowers your people to buy into the concepts and gives them the confidence to take the reins, rather than marching orders from a third party.

Not allowing enough time for the transition. If you try to rush the transition period you are going to lose people, it’s as simple as that. Change management is hard and you should not be impatient when it comes to implementing the new status quo. By giving people the time they need to make the shift, you demonstrate that you are investing in them and that this will be of long-term benefit for the company and for them as well.

A lack of investment in training and development. The lean methodology is not intuitive to everyone and to get results you need to spend the time and resources to train your staff. When you don’t do this effectively, you prevent real empowerment, and this can stymy your transition significantly.

Expecting results too quickly. If you are impatient for results and you don’t let things run their course, you will create tremendous stress and anxiety within the organization that can reflect very poorly on your people. It’s crucial to have a realistic timeframe and execution plan that takes into account the resource constraints and transition period that must be navigated.

Lack of management continuity. It’s paramount that you continue to invest in training and onboarding procedures for new management so that you can continue on the path when turnover happens. When management continuity is absent, a new manager might revert to the old status quo and undo a lot of the hard work that you’d initially put in.

These common problems should show you just how wide-reaching the human elements of lean manufacturing actually are. We have to respect our people in this process or nothing else that we do matters. This is a core piece of the puzzle and something that we need to stop overlooking.

For a lean culture to grow you need to build the capacity and enthusiasm to improve. Start with your people and you’ll have a much better chance of succeeding.

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Matthew Anderson

Industrial Innovation researcher/ Smart Technologies expert, with over 25 years experience in IT/OT domains. https://www.linkedin.com/in/matthewjanderson/