Printing Lean

Developing a Lean Thinking Workforce

August 27, 2010

So much time and energy has been spent and will continue to be spent on learning and using the tools of Lean that we've all become very familiar with. Tools like value stream mapping, 5S, point-of-use-storage and kanban can be easy to understand since each one is something tangible. We can put our hands on, or our arms around, a value stream map, tools that are stored at point-of-use, or on inventory that is controlled through the use of a kanban system. We can see these things and we can understand what they are and what they're used for.

While these tools are essential in any Lean Enterprise, there is one thing, one intangible, that is much, much more important than any single tool or collection of tools. Many would say it's the most important "thing" and that, without it, an enterprise will never truly become Lean. What is it? It's a Lean Thinking Workforce.

What is a Lean Thinking Workforce?
Some of you may be wondering, "Wait a minute. People are not intangible. They're right there in front of you!" You are correct. What I'm talking about, though, is not the actual people themselves, but what they could and should collectively be – a Lean Thinking Workforce.

In order for us to understand what I mean when I say that people – your employees – should be a Lean Thinking Workforce, we have to take a moment to reflect on what Lean Thinking is.

Lean Thinking, a phrase coined by Jim Womack and Dan Jones for the title of their critically acclaimed book Lean Thinking: Banish Waste and Create Wealth in Your Corporation (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1996), is a term used to describe a mindset whereby an organization is focused on providing value to a customer or client, rather than on "the numbers." We call this type of organization a Lean Enterprise.
A Lean Enterprise is an organization, any organization, that constantly seeks ways to eliminate non-value added activities (those things that cost an organization money but which the clients will not pay for) through the constant pursuit of perfection.

A Lean Enterprise is one that provides its customers or clients
-with the right products or services,
-at the right time,
-and only in the right quantities.

In order for an organization to be a Lean Enterprise, its employees must become a Lean Thinking Workforce. A Lean Thinking Workforce is one with the right number of employees, who possess the right skill sets, and who are working on the right thing, at the right time, and in the right quantity.

It's all about the process
In 2006 Jim Womack stated:

"All processes, even when they appear to be totally automated, are in fact sustained by people. People put them in place. People maintain them. People improve them. The question for any organization is how to engage every employee who touches a value stream in sustaining and improving it."

So, no matter what the process is, from sales to order entry to pre-flight to press and beyond, people are essential. People – nominally any organization's "most important asset" – are involved in every single aspect of your business. Tying in to what Womack stated, above, a company and its leadership must, then, "engage every employee in sustaining and improving" the business.

In order for you to turn your employees into a Lean Thinking Workforce, you must educate them on what is expected in this new Lean Enterprise. While certain aspects of Lean might be very apparent to you and to a few others, it can never be assumed that it's readily apparent to everyone in the organization.
Imagine you're Ray Kinsella, Kevin Costner's character in the iconic 1989 motion picture Field of Dreams. At the beginning of the film we find Ray toiling in his corn field when a voice calls out to him. Startled, he looks up to see what he thinks is a baseball field sitting smack in the middle of his field. The image, and the voice, suddenly clicks and you see Ray have his "A-ha!" moment; he gets it. He understands his mission. Later on that night he tries to explain his vision to his wife, Annie, and she laughs at him!

The comparison here is that, like Annie, you could be surrounded by people who share all of the same experiences as you and yet they still don't see what you see, so you need to educate them.

Don't overlook the importance of educating all of your employees, because it is they, after all, who make all of your processes work. Yes, you may have very expensive and highly automated equipment, but it is people who put these pieces of equipment in place, people who maintain them, and people who improve them.

In order for you and your people to give your customers the right products and services at the right time and in the right quantities, you must have the right number of people who have the right skill sets working on the right things at the right time.

A Lean Thinking Workforce possesses the right skills, learned through education and application, which are the bases of proper job instruction. It's your job to educate your workforce and provide them with these skills.

Remember the motto of proper Job Instruction:

If the person hasn't learned,
the instructor hasn't taught.

If your employees don't possess the knowledge and skills, it's because you haven't taught them.

A key word in Jim Womack's 2006 statement is the word "every"; every employee must be engaged if an organization truly wishes to become a Lean Enterprise.

Larry Rubrich, the author of How to Prevent Lean Implementation Failures: 10 Reasons Why Failures Occur (WCM Associates, Fort Wayne IN, 2004), puts it this way in his book:

"Would you rather have 6 or 7 people
making improvements, or everybody?"

I hope your answer is everybody. It must be if your goal is to become a Lean Enterprise. A Lean Thinking Workforce is an engaged workforce. Engage your entire workforce in solving the everyday problems that they face. After all, they are the ones who possess the knowledge and the skill for what is required to produce what you need and when you need it.

In order to engage your workforce in solving problems, you need to create what Steven Spear and H. Kent Bowen called "a community of scientists" in Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System (Harvard Business Review, 1999).

It's a sad fact that many, if not most, in today's workforce are woefully unskilled in problem solving. Why, you ask? It's because we haven't given them the knowledge and the skills to become problem solvers. We need to reeducate our workforce on the basic principles of the Scientific Method:

Observe, Hypothesize, Test, Analyze

Those of you who are familiar with Walter Shewhart's cycle of Plan-Do-Check-Act, later modified and popularized by W. Edwards Deming as Plan-Do-Study-Act, probably already know the similarities between PDCA/PDSA and the Scientific Method. Continuous Improvement is really nothing more than a continuous application of the Scientific Method: Make an observation by collecting as much data and as many facts as possible about the current condition, determine what action you will take to have a positive impact on that condition, test your action (your hypothesis) and take whatever action is appropriate following the test. This is what we should do every time we solve a problem, no matter what that problem is. What happens, though, is that we don't collect enough data and enough facts about the current condition in order to make an intelligent decision. The reasons are many but the outcome is the same: We don't really solve the problem; we just minimize its effects. That's not what we want in a Lean Enterprise. We want to solve problems, and in order to solve problems we need problem solvers.

To create problem solvers we must provide the knowledge to our employees and develop their skills as problem solvers. This won't happen overnight; like any skill this takes practice, but it's a skill that will never be acquired if we don't allow the time to learn it and to develop the skill. Note that I said develop their skills. This isn't skills training; this is skills development. "Training is what you do so that the person can perform the job and meet the numbers. Development is growing the person so that they can become increasingly capable at doing the job." (Jeff Liker and Mike Hoseus, Toyota Culture, 2008)

By providing the proper education of the fundamentals of a Lean Enterprise and giving your employees ample opportunity to develop their skills as problems solvers, you will lay the foundation for your organization to evolve into a Lean Enterprise. This Lean Enterprise will be sustained by a workforce that is educated, motivated, and skilled and your investment in them will pay dividends far exceeding any cost associated with their education.

A Lean Thinking Workforce is a knowledgeable workforce, an engaged workforce, a community of problem solvers, and the core of any Lean Enterprise.

Tom Southworth is a Lean consultant with CONNSTEP, Connecticut's Manufacturing Extension Partnership. He is a Senior Member of ASQ, an ASQ Certified Manager of Quality & Organizational Excellence, SME Lean Bronze Certified and a certified TWI Job Instruction and Job Relations Trainer. He can be reached by email at tsouthworth@

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