Does working in a lean environment require specific characteristics and behaviours? Willi Schneider, a Lean Enterprise Research Centre graduate and a lean strategy and operations consultant based in Berlin, Germany, describes the Exemplary Lean Followership Model he created to identify good followership.

What has worked for Toyota for decades has not led to comparable success in Western enterprises. Many efforts and projects have been brought into practice that impose the lean methods devised at Toyota and adapted in one way or another for enterprises whose cultures were not prepared for such vast changes in thinking and working. Consequently, lean professionals such as Emiliani have seen “so few successful lean transformations.”

Successful lean efforts are based on the involvement and empowerment of employees. Speaking with other lean practitioners, a common thought keeps arising, that lean people must be different in order to make their lean intentions successful.

The Exemplary Lean Followership Model (ELFM) enables to describe individuals in a systematic and holistic way along a set of 18 scales within five occupational dimensions.


Where there is a leader, there are followers.

Followers may be seen simply as subordinates who work directly for a superior – someone who is giving the orders, setting up the rules and leading the way, as per the 2010 Merriam-Webster definition. Other definitions extend the understanding of a follower to a condition, a role or a function.

The term is ambiguous, however, as leaders can simultaneously fulfil a follower role towards their own superiors. In some definitions, following focuses not only on the superior-subordinate pair but on a certain idea or principle that is being followed – such as the lean philosophy. In this case, questions of hierarchy are no longer at the centre of attention.

Looking back to the origins of lean at Toyota, two very central lean principles (“Pillars of The Toyota Way”) can be found, which focus on the role of all employees, those that may be termed as “followers”: respect for people and continuous improvement. The respect for people principle consists of “respect” and “teamwork”, where teamwork is aimed at personal and professional growth, sharing opportunities of development and maximising individual and team performance. As Professor Jeffrey Liker noted in 2007, at Toyota people are seen as the key to expanding and strengthening the company. Toyota actually “makes people, not cars.”


In introducing lean into a company, the common approach still concerns itself with the tools and techniques, meaning that the focus of change is the changing of methods. Most lean production methods are quite simple to understand and apply. Yet they are certainly not at all simple when it comes to applying them well and sustainably.

Tackling this challenge in theory and in discussions held by practitioners up to today mostly means talking about lean leadership and taking a closer look at this end of the problem. The singular lean professional who is either hired to “build lean” or who trains teams on a consulting or training basis is the one (or the few) counted on by top management to infiltrate enterprise systems and cultures with lean knowledge and principles.

It is their responsibility – and an enormous one at that – to get lean thinking through to employees and make lean efforts visible, measurable and successful.

What about the vast majority of people actually involved in lean transition processes? What about the employees, the ones asked to work in a new and promising way? The employees in an organisation choose to either follow the lean lead or not, and if they withdraw their support to change, project failure is almost certain.

Following the approach of focusing on leaders to drive change could overburden them and the organisation, since approximately 80% of the effort in lean transformations is consumed by changing leaders’ mindsets first (like Mann noted in 2009). Anyway, this proceeding would have to be questioned following a notice of Pauline Found and others (2009) about a central principle of lean: improvements “are based on the ideas and knowledge of employees.”

Speaking of people, of employees and teams, of those trying to make those new ideas work in their actual working environment, leads directly to the idea of lean followership.


To understand the concept of followership in depth, I analysed various approaches to followership in general, key authors being Zaleznik, Crockett, Kelley, Lundin & Lancaster, Hollander, Chaleff, Brown, Nolan & Harty, Meilinger, Collinson, Kellerman, Dixon & Westbrook, Frisina and Bennis.

Those approaches were traced back to their basic elements and condensed into one holistic framework describing good followership in general work environments.

Based on this framework, it was explored if working in a lean environment requires specific characteristics and behaviours to be an exemplary follower. Since there have been almost no contributions by scholars that primarily focus on lean-specific followership, a survey of 42 experienced lean practitioners from 15 different companies enriched this exploration.


The focus of lean processes needs to be shifted from tools and leaders to the much disregarded aspect of people, of followers, to be effective. The term “follower” describes an evolved role of employees.

A reliance on leaders is not up to date anymore and the success of an organisation is mainly determined by the quality of its followers – for better and for worse. It is therefore indispensable to know how an exemplary follower may be described as a basis for selection and development.

Exploring good followership in general already exposed parallels to what is considered to be lean thinking, for example a pronounced team orientation. Lean-specific literature and the survey of experienced lean practitioners validated this first impression. Indeed, it also appeared that there are lean-specific characteristics and behaviours that would form an exemplary lean follower and distinguish them from a general exemplary follower, most notably a strong customer orientation.

A followership model that could describe an exemplary follower in a holistic way for a lean environment had to incorporate those specifics, resulting in the Exemplary Lean Followership Model.

Regarding the concept of followership applied to lean organisations two main questions come into view:

#1. Is there a difference between good followership in general and good followership in lean

organisations? Yes, but…

The literature analysis indicates that a distinction is possible and necessary and this impression is emphasised by the survey results. The question may therefore be answered in the positive. However, there is a considerable overlap in terms of what is considered good followership in general and good followership in lean organisations.

#2. What are the characteristics and behaviours of exemplary followers in lean organisations and how may they be described?

The descriptions of good lean employees differed strongly and they are based merely on assumptions and personal experiences. I developed a standardised description model for exemplary lean followers.


Exemplary lean followers hold pronounced characteristics and behaviours, which are allocated in the this model to 18 scales within five dimensions:

  1. Occupational Orientation
    • Motivation to Perform
    • Motivation to Create
    • Motivation to Lead
    • Customer Orientation
  2. Work Habits
    • Conscientiousness
    • Flexibility
    • Action-Oriented
    • Thinking
    • Problem Solving
  3. Social Capabilities
    • Sensitivity
    • Interpersonal Skills
    • Ability to Socialise
    • Team Orientation
    • Organisation Oriented
    • Leader Oriented
  4. Mental Constitution
    • Self-Confidence
    • Moral Balance
  5. Personality
    • Uprightness

The ELFM enables describing individuals along a holistic set of scales in a systematic way. Descriptions and commentary are an important part of the framework if applied in practice. Scales have to be interpreted in the right way, for example “Leader Oriented”, to be of benefit to the organisation. This scale for example refers to the way a follower deals with leaders, a positive value would be to have an active and intense dialogue and, say, not showing a person-oriented loyalty.

With its occupational focus, this set of scales covers relevant occupational dimensions (and not all facets of a personality).


In the following each scale will be described briefly in ascending importance to clarify the meaning in the context of this work.

All scales are considered as being close to each other regarding their importance for a successful lean environment. However, a gradation of the scales by importance was still possible and should enable prioritising development initiatives if needed (degree 1 is most important).

1) Sensitivity

The ability for positive conflict management and showing diplomacy with a good sense for signals in social situations and a high ability to interpret behaviour;

2) Problem-Solving

Being prepared to cope with problems and the ability to identify problems, formulate solutions and to solve them;

2) Thinking

Critical and independent thinking and not being a “yes man/woman”;

2) Action-Oriented

Being willing to and having the ability to quickly execute decisions and standard work guidelines, to stick to a selected alternative even in the face of strong resistance, to concentrate on relevant aspects and managing themselves well;

2) Motivation to Lead

Show favour to guide, coordinate and to influence while being confident. High ability to inspire and motivate;

3) Moral Balance

Moral and psychological balance to pursue personal and corporate goals simultaneously without conflict while following policies and ethical standards;

3) Leader-Oriented

Supporting the leader and keeping him well informed. Moreover, challenge the leaders who are ineffective or unethical by giving constructive criticism and helping them to change. Withdrawing

support if abusive leaders do not change;

4) Ability to Socialise

Being thoughtful, considerate and respectful. Empathising with others and respecting the work they do. Acting balancing and integrating in their environment;

5) Uprightness

Being courageous and honest even when speaking to those in power and having strong moral principles;

5) Self-Confidence

Being a self-starter and a risk-taker. Furthermore, emotional independence from other’s judgements with high self-control and a compelling appearance;

5) Flexibility

Flexibility as an overall approach to work showing a high ability to tolerate ambiguity, confidence in new situations and an openness to new perspectives. Being versatile and innovative;

5) Customer Orientation

Showing awareness of customers and their needs;

6) Conscientiousness

Accurate work style having a high-quality standard on one’s work. Accepts responsibility and is dependable and trustworthy;

7) Interpersonal Skills

Active listening skills and high verbal communication skills enabling the effective expression and discussion of ideas and information in individual or group situations. Furthermore, has the social capacity to work well with others and the ability to develop and actively cultivate occupational and private networks;

8) Organisation-Oriented

Being highly committed to the organisation and to a purpose beyond themselves. Guided by a common purpose to contribute to the big picture. Works across organisational boundaries and has an enterprising way of thinking and a systems view;

9) Team Orientation

Being highly cooperative and collaborative in maintaining group cohesiveness and sharing opportunities of development. Meet collective goals as well as individual ones and is willing to step back in favour of the team;

9) Motivation to Create

Taking initiative and participating actively with high engagement. If inspired by an idea or task, they fight against resistance, make decisions and defend decisions. Highly active in creating change in their environments;

9) Motivation to Perform

A general positive attitude coupled with a desire and ability to continually and quickly learn – driven by intrinsic motivation. Competency in problem-solving and has a questioning nature.


Abraham Lincoln once said: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” Organisations should refer to this statement and institute a rigorous programme of education and self-improvement.

Applying the ELFM in the development of people would make use of it as a standardised platform for such a programme. Moreover, it should be used for selection of new hires, because this is where the development of exemplary followers starts. Furthermore, recruiters could select according to the different levels of “learnability” and identify those traits which are difficult to learn at all.

Therefore, there are two fields for application: selection and development.

As an assessment tool in both fields of application, the ELFM offers an ability to organisations, which is not to be underestimated, since it is the prerequisite for development of exemplary followers to assess them individually. Decisions to hire/not hire a person or how to develop an individual would be guided by a standardised instrument influenced by the lean philosophy. To plagiariseLincoln, it could be said that the ELFM is a “grind stone” for “sharpening the axe”.


The organisational setting should be developed in a way that makes good followership is possible. Followership would have to be institutionalised as a part of business as usual and recognised and celebrated. Managers, at least those surveyed, support this thought and were even open to being held financially responsible for the quality of followers.

The application of the ELFM shall enable lean organisations to better follow the lean principles of respect for people and continuous improvement in their original meaning: stimulation and development for individual and greater purposes.

The ELFM is a framework to support organisations in working more effectively with their main resource: people. The set of characteristics and behaviours of an exemplary lean follower has to be seen as the prerequisite to create or sustain a successful lean organisation.