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Some Managers Just Can’t Get Lean

Jan. 19, 2024
Though professing a commitment to continuous improvement, they never really grasp what it’s all about.

We have often discussed the question of whether the ability to successfully implement a successful lean initiative is something like being able to dunk a basketball or bench press 300 pounds: One can either do it, or one can’t. 

Just as those two abilities depend, at least in part, on one’s DNA, maybe the ability to implement lean does so as well. And just as there are right-brained and left-brained people, are there some managers who can innately understand and adopt lean practices, while others struggle with the concepts and need for it?

Both of us have been “doing lean” formally for well over 30 years, even before it was known as lean (it was once called “time-based management”). Ron was introduced to lean in his first job out of college, where he re-organized six manufacturing flows that encompassed more than 2 million square feet of plant space, most of it vertical. Finding ways to improve efficiency while enhancing value to both internal and external customers just became a natural effort for him.

Working with a plastics manufacturer on a total quality management implementation, Rick was only vaguely familiar with the term “lean manufacturing,” but he could see that the employee teams his client established needed to discuss why inventories were so large and tooling change times were hours long.

Both of us understand that smooth, consistent flow of material and information is fundamental to providing value to the customer at the lowest cost. 

We’ve also noticed that the desire and ability to lead lean implementations is strong with some leaders, and we’ve been lucky to work with a few of them.  (For that matter, Ron has been one of them.) Although they might have needed some help planning and executing a lean initiative, they seemed to intuitively grasp the fact that any successful lean implementation is a change in the culture of the organization, not just the application of a bunch of “lean tools”.

On the other hand, we’ve also worked with leaders who, though professing a commitment to implementing lean concepts and methods, just never seemed to really understand what it’s all about.  Currently, Ron is working to deploy a systematic process for developing a product vital to the nation’s defense. It aims to reduce defects and cost, improve first-pass lead time and prevent late delivery. Sadly, he is getting more than his fair share of resistance from colleagues and superiors who don’t see any need for such an effort, even as they complain about the frustrations of working in current conditions.

Is the intuitive understanding of the value of lean concepts and methods simply part of a manager’s “DNA”?  Is a successful lean implementation something that some managers are capable of carrying out, while others simply aren’t able to manage, no matter how much help they get from workshops, seminars, plant visits or consultants? Our experience tells us that yes, that could well be the case; some manufacturing leaders "get it” while others find lean concepts very difficult to understand if they ever “get it” at all.

Those leaders who get it have several things in common:

  • Genuine and evident respect for everyone who works for them
  • Curiosity
  • A genuine and evident focus on continual improvement of the customer’s experience
  • A strong belief that efficiency, quality and cost control are tightly tied to process control
  • A recognition that a lean implementation is, first and foremost, a change in the organization’s culture.

Respect for Everyone

Managers who “get” lean are predisposed to giving respect to their employees. Before anything like a lean initiative begins, these leaders spend time walking the shop floor and the office halls talking with their employees. They ask how things are going. They inquire as to what frustrations people are experiencing. They seek their ideas. They see their employees as strategic assets and treat them accordingly. They seem to enjoy the opportunity to spend time with the people actually doing the work that customers pay for. They are most proud of their employees when they, on their own, work together as a team to accomplish good things.


These managers ask lots of questions that they don’t already know the answers to, and they listen carefully to the answers they get. They like digging into the numbers—and not just the financial figures. They enjoy tossing ideas around and the give and take of conversation, and even debate about those ideas. Managers who have lean “in their DNA” are pleased when others challenge their ideas. They spend time learning what other organizations and leaders are doing.

Focus on Continual Improvement

These leaders also believe firmly in the “one percent a day” approach to improvement.  They are eager to promote advances in all facets of the operations, not just “cost cutting” and “profits.” They are quick to say yes to improvement ideas, and are just as quick to give recognition and credit to others who are involved in creating improvements in any aspect of the organization. They aren’t looking for “big wins” so much as they are seeking to create a culture of day-by-day improvement.

Ron Jacques is a 35-year veteran within the lean, manufacturing and consulting arenas. He is a certified lean practitioner who has delivered hundreds of kaizen and transformational solutions to clients and companies within the Pharma, Medical Device, Automotive, Food/Beverage, Electronics, Military Defense, Personal Care, Consumer Durables and Capital Equipment industries.

Rick Bohan, principal, Chagrin River Consulting LLC, has more than 25 years of experience in designing and implementing performance improvement initiatives in a variety of industrial and service sectors. He is also co-author of People Make the Difference: Prescriptions and Profiles for High Performance.

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