Describing the richness of lean

Friday, March 15, 2019


Over the last few years, it’s struck me that referring to “lean” as a way of thinking is complementary to, not exclusive of, what the experience of lean feels like. But beyond being an interesting perspective, understanding the experience of lean could be really important.

Watching a presentation on lean culture at a conference, I was struck to my core about what’s missing when explaining lean to people who don’t know much about it.  As I sat there listening to all the features of this lean company’s culture, it resonated with my own experiences.

Shortly after seeing this presentation, I was preparing to explain the basics of lean to a group that included several folks with no exposure to this work. I decided to explain lean by listing all the various ways I’ve experienced it instead of defining it as a methodology. Not surprisingly, I asked them, what do you think lean refers to? They all gave answers that reflected their first impression - that it’s about doing things faster or more efficiently. 

After presenting my experience of lean, I was close to tears from sharing my passion for lean so openly. The way lean is more of a personal mission for me was palpable and it seemed to help the group understand that there was something profoundly sacred about this work.

For as much as people think lean is a way to be more efficient, that by no means captures the reason why I devoted most of my adult life to this work. I always find myself deeply disappointed in how people who don’t know much about lean simplify it to such an extent that they completely miss the essence of it. 

When I fell madly in love with continuous improvement, my experiences touched me so deeply that I’ve never wanted to work with anything else (and that was 30 years ago).

Why has it been so profound?

From my experience, most people with a great deal of lean experience would describe it this way. Lean experiences have felt like:

  • A way to keep learning and growing from experiences (instead of disappointed in yourself or others when mistakes happen)
  • Working with leaders that inspire you to do better and do more than you ever have before
  • An exciting way to serve customers whether they be internal or external, seeking mostly to add value
  • Showing a deep respect for others by listening to what they have to say and asking questions to learn more
  • A way to share experiences with others so that we come to understand both our differences and our similarities
  • The gratifying practice of working as a team to achieve a vision of success while celebrating each small improvement
  • The thrill of taking risks to experiment with new ways to do things instead of staying stuck in the way we’ve always done it

While not every experience may feel good in the moment, I still often leave feeling pleased to have had those experiences. How many of us have felt dumbstruck by finding out that we are wasting time or have been in the middle of waste and not known it? In the end, I am always happy that I’m learning and growing.

Now, this would just be an interesting though not overly important perspective if it weren’t for the challenge we face when getting people to appreciate the many positive aspects of lean (especially when they don’t know much about it).

If a CEO is going to decide whether or not to pursue a lean transformation, it’s much more beneficial for him to think of it as a way to fully engage the workforce and to create a team of collaborative problem-solvers. I’ve found that the best experiences are the ones connected to these aspects of lean, aspects which are much more valuable than just doing something more efficiently.

For example, I have always said that the biggest waste is how many workplaces have narrowly defined job roles. The coolest thing about lean is the way it gives people more opportunity to spread their wings and contribute more of their talents to their work, and that is eminently more life affirming.

I look forward to hearing about your experiences with lean and how they have impacted your interest in this topic apart from just being more efficient. Feel free to email me a comment at

Cheryl Jekiel is the founder of the Lean Leadership Resource Center and author of the book “Lean Human Resources: Redesigning HR Practices for a Culture of Continuous Improvement.” To learn more about and witness three companies that have successfully implemented lean methodologies in their culture, don’t miss the upcoming Three world-class lean cultures event in St. Louis, MO on May 14-15, 2019.