Five Mindsets for the Lean Manufacturing Leadership Team

by | Apr 23, 2018 | Leadership, Operations

Leadership is commonly cited as a primary driver of successful lean manufacturing implementations. It’s hard to argue with that since the leadership team owns all the results of the company. However, it begs the question: What exactly is senior leadership supposed to do? I’ve found there are five keys mindsets senior leaders must have to achieve breakthrough results:

1. Clear Strategic Imperative

There needs to be a “why” associated with implementing lean manufacturing. It’s not an easy journey, and it will challenge the resolve and commitment of everyone if there isn’t a compelling “why.” Examples of strategic imperatives might be:

  • We want our new product introduction process to be 50% faster than the competition
  • We want to engage our workforce in making their job more fulfilling
  • We want to grow our manufacturing here rather than adding another plant
  • Customers are demanding short lead times and smaller runs

2. Results Orientation, Not Tools Orientation

It’s common for organizations (and consultants) to take a tool-oriented approach to lean. They say “We’ll start with 5S, and then move on to Kanban, and after that, etc.…”

That’s the wrong approach. I believe in choosing the lean tools to accomplish the strategic imperative. Focusing on the desired results may lead a team to do a little 5S, followed by some setup reduction, and then some TPM, followed by daily lean management. A future-state value-stream map will help paint this picture, but the key is that it is aimed towards a result and not towards implementing a set of tools plantwide.

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3. Sustainment Over Speed

Lean manufacturing can be exciting. One can’t help but be uplifted by the enthusiasm and pride that comes from kaizen teams – when regular people accomplish extraordinary things. After feeling this excitement, the natural inclination is to do more. Kaizen events are excellent at making change happen rapidly, but they are terrible at creating a climate to sustain the change. Lasting benefits only occur when the improvements are turned into habits and reinforced.

Senior leadership should set a tone that says, “That change is wonderful, and I applaud your efforts.  Let’s earn the right to do more of these by making this one stick for the next 90 days.”

4. Growth Over Cost Reduction

Does lean generate cost reduction? Yes, but not by reducing headcount. Lean manufacturing liberates untapped capacity and allows a company to fill that capacity without adding cost. The total cost of the company is unchanged, but the cost per unit goes down significantly.

Senior leaders need to avoid the trap of making improvements with the intent to reduce headcount. Have a growth plan to fill the liberated capacity. If circumstances force headcount reductions, do so before beginning the lean transformation.

5. Respect Every Individual

Perhaps the most crucial thing that senior leadership needs to do is to establish a culture of deep respect for every person. Hearing “They are resisting change” should make senior leaders cringe because that statement holds an implied disrespect for the value-adding workers. Instead, the sentiment needs to be “We haven’t engaged them and addressed some of their concerns.” Just recently, I heard a continuous improvement engineer refer to the workers on the floor as the end-users of his ideas. That is belittling and disrespectful.


We often hear about Lean being a grass-roots, and bottom-up initiative, and there is no question that employee engagement is a critical success factor.  However, top-down leadership is equally vital.   Leadership must set the framework for the employee’s creativity and energy to shine.

Quote of the day:

“To lead people, walk beside them … As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence. The next best, the people honor and praise. The next, the people fear; and the next, the people hate … When the best leader’s work is done the people say, ‘We did it ourselves!'”

— Lao-tsu