Mark Gregory explains how the secret to lean lies in the employee engagement proposition not in the productivity benefit that a lean tool set provides. So stop focusing on tools and focus on employee engagement.

I have spent the last twenty years working in industry, implementing and sustaining lean philosophy both as a direct line manager and in an advisory capacity. I remain amazed at the continued lack of understanding amongst leaders, practitioners and consultants about the critical importance of the engagement of people at the heart of lean. In Toyota terms, people are the 8th waste, the descriptor Toyota give to the underutilisation of latent people power, either mental or physical.

I am also amazed that any individual or organisation believes they can achieve the results of Toyota without the same organisational alignment and single-minded focus on seeking ultimate perfection. In other words without understanding that engaging leadership and employee engagement in all its forms is the missing link to sustaining lean approaches. It is my view that making “Lean Human” is the foundation of success for any organisation striving to be lean.

Thinking about the organisations that I have led and advised raises some fundamental questions. Why has one area institutionalised lean principles and made them a way of life while the next has not? Why are there pockets of excellence living in close proximity to areas of no change? When probing deeper, time and time again, I found the same answer staring me in the face. Those pockets of excellence had one thing in common: an engaging leader who in their own way inspired a change and was able to create sustainment by engaging employees to own the lean principles. Making Lean Human.

By leader, I don’t mean just the CEO or the director or the local manager or the team leader or supervisor. I am referring to whoever the line leader is, irrespective of organisational or authority level. I am talking about the leader that has the organisational responsibility, either accepted or not, formal or informal, for inspiring individuals to be engaged on the lean journey.

Once I stepped outside of Toyota I tried to understand why other organisations were struggling to institutionalise a lean philosophy. They seemed to know as much about the Toyota Production System (TPS) manual as Toyota. They had, in some ways, a more systematic approach to lean implementation. They certainly had more resources. Some of those resources had lean implementation as their day job. They had lean implementation KPIs. They had yet more resources in the form of independent auditing teams from around the globe that charted the progress. So why was it not taking hold?

I came to the conclusion that that they were focusing their efforts in completely the wrong place.  They were addressing the infrastructure elements of lean – plant, equipment, area layouts and so on. In other words they were focusing on the things that made the organisation feel lean and look lean, but not on the culture the human side of lean.

I describe this in terms of an equation that I have found from viewing many organisations, from the inside out, always rings.

The Lean Equations

  1. Lean Infrastructure          x   Non Lean Culture   ≠      Lean Philosophy
  2. Non Lean Infrastructure  x   Non Lean Culture   ≠     Lean Philosophy
  3. Lean Infrastructure          x   Lean Culture           =      Lean Philosophy
  4. Non Lean Infrastructure  x   Lean Culture           =      Lean Philosophy

A lean culture is therefore the common denominator. Let me give a couple of examples:

While working for a large multinational organisation, they spent millions on a brand new manufacturing facility, state of the art and far better in many ways than anything I had ever seen in Toyota. Shortly after its launch, while on a plant tour, I asked the production manager if I could pull the andon, (a mechanism for alerting all, the production line has stopped and support is required) at the line side. With a little apprehension in his voice and a slight grimace he agreed. So I pulled it and waited. After a few minutes the staff working on the production line sat down and did a multitude of things, some work related, some not. It took several minutes before anyone arrived and a few more before the line started to move again. So you had a lean infrastructure, but a non-lean culture – this is Equation 1.

When Toyota set up its UK operations in the 1990s it was a greenfield site, and a lean infrastructure was there from the beginning. At the same time the company implemented its TPS practices and its cultural way of working. In a very short space of time they were the best in Europe! This is Equation 3.

However, while working for Toyota in Japan I spent eighteen months working in a foundry. A very old foundry, with old buildings, old plant and infrastructure, far from the gleaming infrastructure in the later plants. That foundry nevertheless was the best performing foundry in Toyota Motor Corporation world-wide and the one everyone benchmarked themselves against! Here we have Equation 4.

It is also important to note the multiplication sign in these equations. It indicates the range between lean at the philosophy level as opposed to the surface level or initiative level. Not factoring in the range explains why organisations fool themselves that they are succeeding in being truly lean, when in fact all they are getting are early wins through eating low hanging fruit.

  • Strategic Narrative:
  • Employee Voice;
  • Integrity;
  • Engaging Leadership

It is simple: the more engrained lean is in the culture, the more chance one has of creating a lean philosophy and lean sustainment. Hence the focus on Human Lean, rather than Lean.

Human Lean has at its Heart an Engaging Culture

Macleod and Clarke in their study on the topic of engagement “Engaging for Success – enhancing performance through employee engagement” cite four enablers to true employee engagement:

  • Strategic Narrative:
  • Employee Voice;
  • Integrity;
  • Engaging Leadership

I propose that a lean philosophy offers a route to the first three of these four enablers in a defined and structured way. For example, if you take the concepts of a lean philosophy at principle, system, and tool level and categorise them, you will find they not only support the four enablers of engagement but make them live in a very practical human way.

For example take strategic narrative – The company strategy, supported by the Blue Sky Vision (BSV), supported by Policy deployment (Hoshinkanri), supported by the daily Go, Look, See (Gemba) give all employees a clear lift shaft to where we have been and where we are going.

Standardised work, supported by a continuous improvement (Kaizen) approach, a celebrate mistakes – problem solving ethos, and a Quality Control Circles (QCC), creates a level of employee voice that most organisations would dream of. This is without the power of consultation driven through such forums as Toyota Members Advisory Board (TMAB), a works council.

So what of the fourth element of great employee engagement the Engaging Leader. Why engaging leaders rather than just leaders? The concept of engaging leadership in terms of generating a sustained lean philosophy relies on the leader tapping all four elements of the whole person.

Body: The skill a person holds in the hand and back – their physical contribution.

Mind: The power of their intellect and ingenuity.

Heart: The relationships we hold with one another the emotional connection at a personable level.

Spirit: The individual’s desire to belong to the collective, to be part of something.

The important thing to recognise here is the difference between the body element and the other three. A leader can see measure and control the body output. We check it, we review it, we add key performance indicators (KPI) to it and we squeeze it to maximise its performance. But the other three parts of the whole person are not in the leader’s control. An individual volunteers these to the organisation and the leader. They decide how much of these three they are going to give when they come through the company gates in the morning.

The leader must work hard to tap these three dimensions. This takes enormous levels of energy and focus, energy that is often sapped by the requirements of the other organisational pressures, especially if the organisation has not committed itself wholly to the pursuit of a lean philosophy. The existing non-lean cultural aspects of the organisation and its non-lean leadership will continually drag the leader from the engagement proposition to the KPI delivery proposition. The reality of this is the leader is then forced back to driving only the body element of the whole person.

So how do we break this cycle? What does the engaging leader focus on in order to engage? They focus on four imperatives that will engage the employee and the organisation alike.


Inspire Trust: The foundation of engagement; without it an individual or group will never truly give. We have probably all experienced a time when mistrust existed in our lives and therefore we know how it made us act. This is no different in the work place. Inspire trust in all, superiors, peers, subordinates, customers etc. It is our license to lead!

Clarify Purpose: In lean it is quite simply our understanding of the value we add and in what way. It allows us to feel our contribution and if nurtured in the right way allows to have a voice in how we may contribute further.

Align Systems: This is the key focus of our lean tools in action, the true pursuit of total value added alignment in all activities. Where the opposite exists and bureaucracy reigns we find de-motivated and disengaged employees. Misaligned systems are an energy sapping organisational cancer – eradicate them with passion.

Unleash Talent: The total use of the people we employee. Year on year we are asked to do more with less. Yet how many of us has a job that challenges us to use the full capacity of our intellect ingenuity and passion?

If the leader focuses on these four imperatives they will tap all elements of the whole person. If the leader taps into the whole person they will engage that individual in a way that is so powerful that not only will the employee engage in the endeavours of the leader, the team and the organisation, but in my experience they will go the extra mile to ensure greatness.

This concept of the engaging leader, is in mind, without doubt the single most important factor in generating Human Lean in all its forms.


Lean Tools Create the Engagement Opportunity

So how does this engagement proposition work within the lean philosophy? To demonstrate, think of a lean tool like value stream mapping (VSM). Now ask yourself this, if I conduct VSM to the best of my abilities, in the way it is designed to be done, which of the four imperatives of engaging leadership does it touch?

My answer, and I anticipate yours, is: all four. Try it again with another lean tool, and you will find the same. The lean tool set both forces and supports the leader to touch the four imperatives in a defined, controlled, consistent way that can be checked and refined by other leaders. This in turn gradually engages more and more of the whole person, ultimately generating true organisational engagement. This is the real power of the lean tool set – not the tool itself or the KPI it might produce.


The Attention Effect

What about sustaining the lean journey and embedding the approach? From my experience what happens in these early days of the lean journey is “the attention effect”. Put simply by using the lean tool set in some form of intervention you have given the employee a voice but only for a brief moment in time.

What happens is that organisations get focused on the lean tool set, believing it to be the reason for those early wins and successes. They then continue to force the tool set intervention approach and totally miss the fact that it was engagement that produced the output. The lean tool was just the vehicle to create that engagement opportunity.



In summary lean philosophy is an employee engagement philosophy, “Human Lean”. A philosophy that is in the first instance focused on engaging the employee and in the second instance focused on the productivity benefit.

Its power is that through the lean tool set it helps the leader engage in a consistent way, that can be easily reviewed and improved by the organisation, and that offers controlled, aligned empowerment in a way that is easily learnt by any leader with the right mind set and attributes.   And crucially, it is a way that is sustainable. The sustainment of engagement offers the sustainment of lean. The reason organisations fail to sustain lean is not because they do not understand the lean tool set but because they do not understand engagement and how to create engaging leadership, which needs to engage all four dimensions of an individual if it is to harness the 8th Waste.

The sustainment of lean offers the sustainment of engagement. The two are inseparable. Creating Human Lean.


A Final Word

“Wherever you work, your job as a manager is to make your people the very best they can be – and usually they don’t know just how good they could be. It is individuals that make the difference. For Toyota, this approach is not based on altruism – though it is based on a profound respect for its members. It is predicated on the firm belief that the most valuable asset the company has is its people, and that enabling them to have an intellectual and emotional relationship with their work, as well as a financial stake in the success of the company, is the key to continuous product and productivity improvement from the shop floor to the boardroom. Toyota’s people are their competitive advantage”

– Alan Jones, Chairman Emeritus of Toyota UK.