How to Develop a Lean Managerial Mindset

Lean thinking trims fat from process.

Most companies would benefit from lean thinking. Lean thinking is a business methodology first popularized by Toyota in the 1950s. It examines workflows for optimization, said Guy Parsons, founder of Value Stream Solutions and a consultant on lean principles.

But the goal isn’t to optimize people out of work. It’s about trimming down the business, reducing the friction workers encounter when moving a product or service from Point A to the point where it’s in the customer’s hands. A manager can place a stopwatch on virtually any item in a workflow — whether it’s generating a mortgage or preparing a proposal — and discover that 99 percent of the time, that item is sitting in numerous places across the process, Parsons said. Roughly 1 percent is actively being worked on.

At a high level, the lean philosophy focuses less on speeding up valuable parts of a process known to make a work product flow, and more on a deeper examination into the individual stages of the workflow. Pulling themselves away from seeing just the end result, managers should look more deliberately at the steps it takes to get there, teasing out places where an item either sits still and waits for attention, goes backwards, or waits for an approval. “It’s kind of like looking at a telescope through the opposite end,” Parsons explained.

For instance, take a generic sales order process where a salesperson in the field finds a customer interested in buying their product or service. The salesperson scribbles down their information on a scrap piece of paper then returns to the office expecting to have the exchange seamlessly processed. The problem is the people responsible for processing the information can’t decipher the salesperson’s notes, or they don’t have all the information needed to place the order. Time is lost as these workers hunt for missing data, and the salesperson is no closer to getting their commission.

In a similar scenario, Parsons said the sales team could get together with the people who enter the orders into the system and talk about pain points in the workflow. To eliminate that pain, a simple web tool might be created for the salespeople to record the sales information, or the groups could settle on a checklist of items for the salespeople to keep track of so there’s no missing information and lost time upon their return to the office.

Parsons offered three ways leaders can start identifying business waste within their organization:

  1. Look at the process. Almost every workflow has waste and moments of excitement. Parsons used the experience of taking a flight, for example. “What portion of time is spent moving, what portion of your time is spent in different queues — getting through security, waiting to board the plane, waiting for the plane to pull back from the gate?” The key is to look at time not in terms of how fast someone is doing something but from a running perspective on how long it takes for the item in process to flow from beginning to end. Then look at what portion of that is important to the customer.
  2. Check for first-time quality. Managers can ask people about their work. How much of it arrives to them in a good enough shape to begin their unique tasks? How much of it requires cleanup before carrying out their part of the process? More often than not, people are doing cleanup on work before they can get to the valuable work, which means people aren’t getting good inputs to do a good job.
  3. Ask about workload. In white collar work especially, there’s what Parsons calls the “waste of overburden.” Afraid to say no to work, stressed out employees say yes to everything, doing what they can and hoping they don’t get in trouble for the things they didn’t do. But the reality is when juggling many projects, employees are constantly shifting their focus, which inevitably causes a drag. “When we give people 20 or 30 deliverables, they spend more time switching between the tasks and answering their emails than they do actually doing what we pay them to do.”

However promising these strategies are in identifying business waste, having the right organizational culture is necessary to support these efforts. Parsons said there are a few ways learning leaders can help managers foster a culture of continuous improvement and help their teams reduce business waste.

Encourage managers to have team conversations not just about how much work employees are doing, but about how they’re getting that work done. Ask people what they have on their plates. Discuss and address tension points around completing tasks, and confirm alignment on priorities. “If people are trying to move two, three, four or five different kinds of work across their desk in a given day, they’re usually spending too much time trying to engage and disengage with the work instead of adding value,” Parsons said.

Have managers highlight the value of small-scale experimentation. Leaders need to give people time to focus, talk and to learn. Learning may lead to experiments, where employees talk about what happened in that experience and then make adjustments. However, leaders are usually so focused on output, they don’t spend enough time thinking about the ways employees do their work. It’s imperative that managers create opportunities for employees to try different ways of getting work done. Not everything will be a success, but people will learn something and be better for it, Parsons said.

Leaders who adopt a lean mindset are better able to engage employees, reduce turnover, save time and money for the company and add value for customers.

Bravetta Hassell is a Chief Learning Officer associate editor. Comment below or email