Posted On:

Introducing lean to an organisation can be hard work. Management journals and books are littered with cases of failed or suboptimal implementation of lean. The thinking behind lean runs contrary to some conventional approaches to organisational management and control. It can challenge the self-image of managers and leaders as the people with the answers to whom problems and crises are escalated. It can also challenge the behaviour of leaders who have become accustomed to working in a different way and in different circles to most of their staff. This is not a criticism of those individuals, it is a reflection of the behaviour and practices they have learned through many years of work. Successfully embedding lean requires leaders and managers to focus on building the capacity of the organisation, which really means the people. This draws on Deming’s view that we need to manage by means rather than by targets. Long term success is achieved by leaders working to build the skills and abilities of the people they employ. A goal of lean is to create an organisation of problem solvers so nothing need be escalated as a crisis.

Employees can often quickly see the benefits of lean to their work. They get taught new skills and are trusted to solve problems. Upskilled and empowered – what is not to like? Leadership can be harder to convince because lean as an investment decision is somewhat paradoxical. The return on investment is hard to quantify. When contemplating lean in knowledge organisations (such as universities), management has to think in terms of increasing organisational capacity rather than reducing cost. This is complicated by lean often being presented as primarily about eliminating waste from processes, surely leading to lower cost of delivery. In manufacturing, where there is a high cost of materials and clear cost of production, this is often true. But in knowledge organisations where efficiency usually means time savings, the question is what to do with the time saved in existing processes rather than how to cash those time savings in. The return on investment is the value created from new activities using the time freed up from existing processes, not the cost reduction in existing processes. It is a growth mentality. While it is true that workforce profiles change over time as the skills needed for new activities change, lean does not work if viewed as the vehicle to drive cost cutting and downsizing.

When you delve into lean in more detail, you find that it is all about behaviour. Lean tells leaders to model a problem solving approach to work, and to coach other people in doing the same. This requires leadership at all levels to set aside the time in their busy schedules to actually work with other people on how to solve the problems those staff identify. In the current state of most management and leadership roles, that is very hard to do. Even the best intentioned managers would groan inwardly at finding the time for this. But this investment in building the problem solving skills of the organisation in an objective, collaborative and non-judgemental way, is what will set the organisation on the path to greater success.

Liker and Balle put it very well when they wrote that “the key to lean thinking is not to apply the lean tools to every process but to develop the kaizen (continuous improvement) spirit in every employee so they can solve each unique problem with the appropriate approach” (2013). It starts with behaviour.

Liker, J., Balle, M., 2013, Lean Managers Must be Teachers, Journal of Enterprise Transformation, 3(1): 16-32

(This is the first of a series of blogs by Chris Shannon, of The University of Queensland. Chris has worked in higher education management for the past 15 years. He has a degree in human resource management, a masters in leadership and a graduate certificate in executive leadership. Chris started using lean in 2015 while working on a university wide process improvement project, and has continued to use it as a manager and internal consultant. Chris has led process improvement activities in student administration, finance, HR, and veterinary science. Chris can be contacted at [email protected], and through Linkedin,




All Entries

For all enquiries please get in touch

Contact Us