top of page
  • Brian M Winningham

The People Side of Lean

Originally published by my friends over at The Lean Builder. You can find that article here! There are tons of other great articles there as well. Please spend some time checking their site out!

“The people side of Lean.” I hear people talk about it in my work, and I read articles that discuss its importance. I have even used the phrase myself many times, and like it. It has a nice ring to it, and it evokes the critical “Respect for People” foundation of Lean.

There’s just one problem: it isn’t true.

Lean Principles Respect for People

Respect for people isn’t a PART of Lean, and there is no “people side of Lean”. Without respect for people, what you are doing isn’t Lean. You can’t separate people from Lean, so there isn’t a side of Lean that is the tool and a side of Lean that is the people.

Lean, at its simplest terms is about providing the CUSTOMER (people) the right product, at the right time, in the right quantity. In a Lean environment, everyone in the supply chain is considered a Customer, and each Customer impacts the product in a different way to create the final product—which is then purchased, used, or consumed by the final Customer. Lean seeks to optimize the experience of the product through the supply chain by creating better outcomes through placing an emphasis on the contributions of every Customer in the chain, and finding autonomy for each Customer in the chain to maximize their product and make it better. The Lean concept believes that all of us are smarter than any single one of us.

Lean Universal Truths

Lean doesn’t work without the underlying principles and universal truths, like the Golden Rule, which asks us to treat others as we want them to treat us. In most cases with most people, if you begin with aggression, you get aggression in return. Some people may just disengage, but this is a form of self-protection in the same way that returned aggression is a form of self-protection. Since your output is based upon your input, neither option, aggression nor disengagement, will lead to the optimum outcomes we want. So, the Golden Rule tells us if you don’t want to receive aggression, don’t be aggressive towards others. Lean tools have been adapted to capitalize on all these same universal truths, because these truths make everything work better. In fact, where humans are concerned, we become broken—as countries, as companies, as families, and as people—when we forget these universal truths.

Lean Managers

So, how do we show respect for people? This gets to the heart of what it means to go from being a manager to being a LEADER.

Most managers were formerly DOERs, and to go from DOER to LEADER can be a tricky transition. Some people never master it. Can you think of some of the ways you currently show respect for your customers? Not just your final customer, but all the customers in your supply chain? Thinking about the Golden Rule and other universal truths, are there some new ways you could show these customers respect—starting today?

In order to understand what Respect for People looks like, we, as managers LEADERS, need to put a critical eye towards the value we add to the process and creation of the final product. Do your actions add value to your team? Or do you only seek to reduce risk for your company (or for yourself)? How does having a risk mindset (focused inward, and on avoiding bad things that can happen to us) differ from having an outward mindset (focused outward, and on making things better for people around us)?

Which of these do you believe creates the most value?

Arbinger Institute – Outward Mindset

The Arbinger Institute says this about an Outward Mindset: With an outward mindset, however, we see others as people who matter like we do. We take into account their needs, challenges, and objectives. And we focus on collective results. We feel responsible to do our jobs and do them well, but also to do them in a way that supports others in doing their jobs—because we know their jobs contribute to the organization’s results just like ours do. (

As a manager, you don’t build or make—and therein lies a conundrum about leadership. Your only opportunity to add value to the final product is to reduce the risk for your team. You can reduce your team’s risk by creating, fostering, and valuing an outward mindset—and this will maximize the value of the whole supply chain.

And an outward mindset is critical for lean thinking. So then, how do we create an outward mindset in our teams?

It starts and ends with you! Here are FIVE positive steps you can take, right now, to promote lean thinking in your team and in yourself. (It just so happens that these same steps will also help move you from manager to leader, and from an inward mindset to an outward mindset.)

5 Steps Towards Lean Thinking

  1. You must decide on your culture. You get to choose the culture of your world, the culture of your company, the culture of your family, and the culture of you. These need to align, and work and build upon each other. Be inquisitive and challenge yourself often. You must understand that being surrounded by people who think exactly as you do is not only boring, it is dangerous. If your thoughts and ideas are never challenged, then you never grow. We only learn when we can experiment with new ideas. Ideas are best experimented on, together, with people with different points of view.

  2. You must gamble on your people. The successes are theirs and the failures are yours. Your only way to add value to the final product is to enhance the supply chain by removing roadblocks for your team—and theyare almost never the same roadblocks for any team or project. This gives you a chance to show your team how to do Plan Do Check Adjust (PDCA) This is key to growing into the role of a leader.

  3. You must show faith and be willing to publicly fail! Lean thinking is key here, because it sees every failure as an opportunity to learn something new and to continuously improve. If you model this for your team and show your willingness to experiment (PDCA) until you get to the right solutions, your customers throughout the supply chain will never let you down.

  4. You must shut up and listen! This is the single most important part of communication. We can’t communicate without listening. Listening is a skill, and it must be learned. We all have unconscious biases; these come out when we “say our piece,” and they are an impediment to understanding someone else’s point of view—especially the people that work for and with you.

Overcoming Unconscious Bias

Your unconscious bias is contributing to members of your team not submitting ideas. If you teach yourself to listen first you can overcome your unconscious bias. When you listen with interest to an opinion that is different from yours, you can discover solutions that would never have occurred to you on your own. When your team knows you will listen with interest to all of their ideas, together you will find solutions that never would have been possible before.

  1. You must understand that knowledge is everything, and it always has been. Knowledge is all we truly earn at our work. This deeper understanding of our work allows us to add more value to the processes that shape our products. This is what allows you to anticipate the roadblocks for your team—and find ways to remove them, so your team can focus on adding more value. A truly virtuous cycle!

The People Side of Lean

Lean is about our shared human condition and our shared knowledge. Lean works in ways that help all of us to be our best selves, every day, when we have an outward mindset. Also, Lean is about continually improving by listening and learning from everyone around us. This is why there is no “people side of Lean”. There is no portion of Lean that isn’t about people!

Mindset matters when you are dealing with people and this is why an outward mindset is so powerful. People will quickly figure out if you are full of crap. You need to mean it—and practicing an outward mindset teaches you to mean it. Stop weighing risks and start looking for ways to add value to your team. This will only enhance the final product. Personally, I would trust a solution that was developed with the wrong tool + right mindset more than one created with the right tool + wrong mindset.

You can learn more about how to practice an outward mindset in The Outward Mindset: How to Change Lives and Transform Organizations by The Arbinger Institute. You can find this and other resources here:

9 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page