20th Anniversary of Lean Thinking

lean_thinkingAround this time twenty years ago, I was on an airplane traveling to from Connecticut to Los Angeles on a day-trip (a day trip!) to meet with an important supplier to my company, Pratt & Whitney.

I had just bought the book Lean Thinking a few days earlier (at an actual bookstore), and I read the book slowly and carefully on the long outbound flight, underling key passages and making copious notes in the margins. I reviewed my extensive mark-ups on the return flight and wrote down some new ideas.

At the time I was new to Lean. I was a business unit manager in manufacturing and had my first experience with Shingijutsu-kaizen just two years earlier. The first kaizen was a “Wow!” experience, as were the others that followed. I was hooked on learning more about the Toyota Production System (TPS), also known as “lean production.” I found Lean Thinking to be inspiring, in part because of the chapter on Pratt & Whitney, which featured people that knew and had interacted with, and educational.

The book resonated with me, but not for the usual manufacturing-related reasons. My interest was leadership, and I spent the prior five years reading all that I could to help me in my work as a leader at Pratt & Whitney. So when I read Lean Thinking, I was reading it through the lens of improving leadership for the Lean enterprise, not for improving production. (Read Taiichi Ohno’s book, Toyota Production System, through the lens of leadership, and you will be amazed at the new insights you gain).

A year earlier I gave a presentation at a Pratt & Whitney operations leadership meeting where I described how to apply kaizen tools and methods to improving one’s leadership skills and capabilities. Click here to view the presentation. This was the start of Lean leadership as its own area of study and it led to my first paper on the topic titled “Continuous Personal Improvement,” published in early 1998.

So while reading Lean Thinking, I got the idea to translate what I had learned into a new, more comprehensive model for leadership that went beyond what I had written in “Continuous Personal Improvement.” The model that I developed, inspired directly by Lean Thinking, was called “Lean Behaviors.” This became the title of my second paper on Lean leadership, published in late 1998.

The five principles of Lean Thinking – “precisely specify value by specific product, identify the value stream for each product, make value flow without interruptions, let the customer pull value from the producer, and pursue perfection” (p. 10) – was the answer to two basic questions: “How do we do it?” and “What are the key principles to guide our action.” (p. 9) to go from Lean production to Lean enterprise.

The paper, “Lean Behaviors,” applied the five principles of Lean Thinking to leadership, and I introduced the concept of “behavioral waste” (the eighth waste) – which I defined as “behaviors that add cost but do not add value.’ It was a simple, elegant solution to a vexing problem: “What is Lean leadership?” and “How do I become a Lean leader?” Many people told me these ideas of mine were a decade ahead of their time.

Below are images that summarize how I translated Womack and Jones’ principles of Lean Thinking for products into principles for Lean leadership for people. The paper, “Lean Behaviors,” is much more detailed, but the slides below capture the essential elements.


“Lean Behaviors,” won the outstanding paper award for the 1998 volume of Management Decision. The award was given to me in recognition of my innovative application of ideas from production management to leadership, and especially the practical utility of “Lean Behaviors.” You can easily see from the above slides that “Lean Behaviors” is practical, not theoretical.

In 1999, I left industry for academia and continued my study of Lean leadership, which has resulted in more than a dozen books and 20 papers, which include abundant commentary and analysis on the critically important “Respect for People” principle. All of my writing is informed by my experiences in industry as a leader charged with practicing TPS in operations and in supply chains, and my continuing practice of Lean in higher education. It is also informed by my extensive reading beyond Lean Thinking. Specifically, the literature on progressive management dating back to the late 1800s, which reveals that most of yesterday’s difficult leadership problems remain with us today, and works by Toyota leaders and other hands-on practitioners.

These later works make many more new contributions to the body of Lean knowledge and practice, in particular the linkages between beliefs, behaviors, and competencies of Lean leaders compared to conventional leaders. The contrast is remarkable, and goes far in helping us understand why effective Lean leadership is rare and what we can do to make it more common.

You can learn about that, as well as Continuous Personal Improvement and Lean Behaviors, in my workbook, Practical Lean Leadership. It simply and elegantly aligns leadership practices with operating practices, so leaders need only to remember and do one thing instead of two.

My most recent work, Speed Leadership, discards the old behavioral view of leadership and takes a new process view of leadership. This is truly innovative thinking that I hope you will want to learn more about. Click here to visit my Speed Leadership web site.

So, it is fair to say that the combination of Shingijutsu-kaizen and the book Lean Thinking by Womack and Jones helped get me onto the path of improving my own Lean leadership skills and capabilities and helping others do the same. So, to both of them I say a heartfelt, “Thank you!”

Strangely, Womack (Lean Enterprise Institute) and Jones (Lean Enterprise Academy) do not recognize (or use) any of my work. The same is true for some other people who have made significant contributions to the body of Lean knowledge and practice. What’s up with that?



– Lillian Gilbreth, 1914

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