‘Lean’ is not about finding clever ways to cut staff.

‘Lean’ Gets Abused

I recently met a woman from Evansville, Indiana that shared with me that she is a Lean / Six Sigma Black Belt. Of course, as an advocate of Lean, I was excited by this finding. I asked her how she was applying these tools in her job.  She shared that she is not.  Curious, I pressed on and asked her, “Why not?”  She went on to say that her company uses Lean to find ways to get the work done with fewer people and then lays off the excess personnel.  She refuses to use her skills in this manner.

For the last three years, I have marketed my own business using the words ‘Efficiency Consultant.’  The simple truth is that I am a Lean Consultant, but I was fearful that people would mistake me for someone who could cost them their job.

Lean Journeys

On August 27, 2015, I had the opportunity to attend the Southwest Indiana Chamber’s Tri-State Manufacturers’ Alliance Lean Journey event at the University of Southern Indiana.  Three gentleman from different companies shared their company paths to Lean Enterprises and the benefits they have seen.

One man in particular, Gary Peterson, Executive Vice President, Supply Chain & Production at O.C. Tanner, told his story and I have thought about it every day since.

Early in Gary’s career he was placed in an important leadership role.  He was soon facing lots of challenges. Challenges that he did not know how to solve.  One day an employee stopped him in the hall and expressed her concerns about the company, listing off many of the issues that plagued him.  He responded to her in an authoritative and belittling way to cover up for his own leadership insecurities.  She cried.  He felt terrible.  For several days, he fretted over how to make things right.  On the fourth day, he sought her out, apologized and confessed that he did not have answers to the problems.  A few hours later, two other individuals from her department appeared in his office and began sharing ideas with him on how to make things better.  He has never looked back!

This story brought back my own memories of being an overly-proud new college graduate.  My dad, a former Tool Designer for Caterpillar, and still a voice of wisdom in my head, sat me down and said, “I am going to tell you something. Those men running those machines will always know a hell of a lot more about that machine than you ever will.  So, if you want to be successful, you had better learn to respect their opinion.”  Even now, 27 years into my own career, when I am feeling ill-equipped to solve a problem, I try to remind myself, that it isn’t about knowing the answer, it is about giving others the forum to share their thoughts, ideas, skills and experience to come up with solutions greater than any one individual could have conceived on their own.


Stop believing that as a leader you have to know all, be all and do all. Set that higher level vision for the company, set quantitative goals, teach your staff how to look for waste, give them a system for making things better and then step back!  The rewards? No guarantees, because this isn’t easy, but I have seen companies:

  • Improve their customer facing processes resulting in more business.
  • Reduce the amount of time it takes to do the work by 1000’s of hours, freeing up resources to handle the growing customer base.
  • Allow their employees to implement safety programs reducing lost time accidents.
  • Simplify product designs, saving millions in supply chain costs.
  • And much, much more.

Don’t use Lean to reduce your personnel costs.  Use Lean to empower employees to make your company exceptional.

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