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Robert A. Brown


The Neglected Half of Lean Thinking

Think people assets, not people waste

Published: Tuesday, March 26, 2013 - 08:43

Chances are you are not fully satisfied with the results of your lean initiatives. It’s also likely that lean thinking is not used to improve your employees’ skills in working together. That’s because you are using only half, probably less, of the power of lean thinking.

In 2001, Toyota declared that its success rested on two pillars: continuous improvement and respect for people. However, people in association with waste have been essentially ignored.

It’s easy to observe an assembly worker’s operational processes. What about someone daydreaming during a meeting? Is daydreaming in a meeting a waste to eliminate?

Nonproduction activities use a different kind of lean component. One objective of production is to pass a defect-free output to the next process in the value stream. What is a defect-free output for knowledge work and interacting with other people? That output is not so clear.

By better understanding and employing the neglected half of lean, organizations can have more robust continuous improvement, enhanced lean sustainability, and more efficient employee interactions with clear communication.

The current state

Studies report that fewer than half of lean programs provide the anticipated benefits. Equally troubling is that many lean Shingo Prize recipients have not sustained their gains at follow-up. Ineffective interaction between people is a root cause of these results. Waste occurs every day in meetings, discussions, email messages, directing, training; every human interaction creates a degree of waste. For example, of an estimated 17 million meetings held every day in the United States, 50 percent of the meeting time is unproductive, according to research from the University of Minnesota. Another study reports that these meetings waste $37 billion a year.

Only a handful of lean leaders recognize that people inefficiencies are as wasteful, if not more, than any of the original seven productivity wastes. Even fewer leaders know what to do about it.

The eighth waste

To address this issue, a few lean thought leaders have proposed an eighth waste to stand with the classic seven. Norman Bodek, the “godfather of lean” in America, says it’s the underutilized talents of workers. Bob Emiliani of Central Connecticut State University talks about the broader elements of “behavioral waste” with a focus on leadership waste. Other thought leaders added the following ideas for an eighth waste: unused employee creativity, confusion, failure to harvest all the IQ points of the people around the table, complexity, recreating knowledge, missed opportunities when people don’t speak up, and skills not fully leveraged.

A new perspective

The effort to expand the concept of productivity waste to people is a good start, but it must be taken further. The human element is too complex to be crammed into a catchall eighth waste. Rather than stuffing the whole of human behavior into one waste, it is necessary to redefine and expand the concept of respect for people and include all employees, from the C suite to the half-time intern; from assembly workers to zoo keepers; and include every possible interaction an employee can experience.

Respect for people

Lean expert Jon Miller translates the original Japanese words for respect for people as, “holding precious what it is to be human.” How do you put this idea into practice?

Norman Bodek has said, “I want people to come to work and feel great about themselves and their organization... to build their skills and capabilities—everyone striving to be their best, to be an artisan at something.” Others have suggested similar outcomes. including self-esteem, sense of mastery, accomplishment, teamwork and well-being. Just as customers value features of a product, employees value positive interactions with others and a sense of well-being.

The lean-thinking frontier

On any given day a lean expert with stopwatch and clip board tells a worker, “Your work is 93.6-percent nonvalue-added.” Sure, the process may be the root cause for the waste, but the employee feels the heat. We can do better. It may be right and accurate to describe a pile of scrap metal as waste, but it is not useful or productive to describe a worker’s best effort the same way. Using the term “waste” for what people do generates waste. Employees resent it.

Respect for people should be positive, not negative. In Flow in the Office (Productivity Press, 2007), Carlos Venegas writes, “Lean liberates hidden talents and capacities in everyone involved, even as it unleashes value.” We are not well-served to use the word waste or its concept to improve the people side of lean thinking. Search for the good and improve it. Instead of “people waste,” which is awkward even to say, I propose a total shift to the concept and the term, “people assets.” With the new respect for people, we will seek out people’s assets and enhance them. Continuous improvement is eliminating the negative; respect for people is improving the positive, moving toward a compelling vision, adding strengths, removing barriers, creating positive interactions and experiences.

The seven respect-for-people assets

Among the infinite variety of people actions and interactions, patterns and commonalities can be identified. Experience has demonstrated that no matter what the job, people bring to work a limited set of needs and expectations. What is important to them, what makes the job fulfilling, and what ensures that the elements of a job well done are similar for everyone?

We have distilled respect for people into these seven assets:
1. Teamwork
2. Leadership
3. Communication
4. Problem-solving
5. Engagement
6. Rewards
7. Knowledge

When these assets are used skillfully and continuously, employees contribute more to improvement initiatives, invest more of themselves in sustaining change, and work together more efficiently and effectively. The importance of these particular seven assets is clear.

Compared to a group of individuals working together, teamwork enhances: communication, commitment, security, synergy, cooperation, the feeling of belonging, individual risk-taking for the good of the team, buy-in, equal loads, accountability, unity of purpose, identity, sharing, trust, and more. Taiichi Ohno, considered to be the father of the Toyota Production System, recommends putting every employee on a team.

There is an African proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”

Statistician W. Edwards Deming observed that “85 percent of all operational and business problems are the fault of management.” Even if Deming was only half right, leadership and management constitute an important component that must be addressed in a lean organization. A large percentage of employees quit their jobs due to poor relationships with their immediate supervisors.

Few topics about human dynamics elicit more attention than communication. From one-to-one discussions, to memos and emails, to talking points and leadership pronouncements, exchanging information is vitally important for company success, yet it’s often not addressed meaningfully. Communication includes how information is disseminated. Are all the people who should know being informed? How long does it take information to get where it needs to go? Where does feedback fit in?

Problem solving
The untapped potential of workers as a possible eighth waste is primarily applying human intelligence to a problem. Applying the collective IQ of a group of people was also suggested as the eighth waste, and so was the tendency of people not to speak up. All these are examples of people not knowing how to work together effectively to solve problems. In many discussions, one person’s idea wins while other ideas are dismissed or even ignored—not a good way of fostering morale or participation or finding the best solution.

Gallup found that 56 percent of employees are not engaged in their work. Other Gallup studies have shown that engaged employees are more productive, safer, better at relating to customers, more profitable, and stay with the company longer than less engaged employees. Engaged employees are also better at innovation and change initiatives.

An often-replicated 1946 federal study of what workers want noted that the top three for employees are recognition, being kept informed, and having personal needs appreciated. However, managers reported that the top three wants for employees were good wages, job security, and promotions. What is worse, managers, out of a list of only ten, put employees’ top three as the bottom three. According to George Mason University’s Kenneth Korvach, the type and order of wants has changed somewhat over the years, but not the misperceptions of managers.

Toyota believes that much of its future success will be based on out-learning and out-developing the competition. They also insist that their managers are first and foremost teachers. Increasing knowledge and ensuring that this knowledge is used efficiently and effectively will add considerably to employee well-being. Employees who know how to do their jobs can more easily improve them and work with others to improve processes throughout the value stream.

Using assets to improve lean thinking

These assets are the basis for improving people interactions the same way that eliminating wastes are used to improve processes. The challenge is measurement. The seven wastes can be seen and measured. How is group problem-solving measured? How is meeting efficiency defined? The answer is to divide the seven assets into their respective components and use a tool or model for the tasks of that component.

For example, one component of leadership is delegation. Delegation can be standardized using Stephen Covey’s five-step delegation model. Using or not using this model is an initial measure, and during and after the model is used, the results of each step and the process as a whole can be evaluated.

There are many proven models that can measure the improvement of assets. Patrick Lencioni’s meeting models, for example, can be used to enhance communication and engagement.

John Kotter’s eight steps for change can be used, as can Socratic questions and the tools of structured daily management systems. For teams it can be the Four-Part Teaming model. For problem solving, it can be the five-step Harnessing the Speed of Thought process. Models or tools with identified steps are used to measure performance. Each step is taken in turn and the results evaluated. Using such tools to create standard work for people interactions offers a defined framework (rather than the more common shoot-from-the-hip) and provides a step-by-step assessment of how well the approach is working.

Identifying assets and using tools fulfills two lean concepts: without standards, there can be no improvement; and every process should have a tool. Now lean can be used not to insult employees by pointing out their waste, but positively to measurably improve their skills of interactions with one another.


I propose that these seven assets are the critical elements for positive interactions and sense of well-being that make up respect for people. Identifying these assets and using the right tools enable us to fire up this neglected half of lean.

If your company is like most, even those well into their lean journey, respect for people is only a concept and not an active, directed effort with a plan, goals, methods, and measures. These organizations are missing the strongest outcomes of lean thinking:
• Highly effective, continuous improvement activities
• The right infrastructure for lean sustainability
• Informed, engaged, problem-solving employees

The end result is a team of employees working effectively and efficiently together to create products and services in the truly least wasteful way.


About The Author

Robert A. Brown’s picture

Robert A. Brown

Robert Brown is president of Collective Wisdom, Inc., providing workshops and consulting on the people side of organizational development. Brown is an author, speaker, and trainer, presenting at venues worldwide. He’s authored many articles and nineteen books including The People Side of Lean Thinking (2013), The HST Model for Change (2017), The Dark Matter and Dark Energy of Lean Thinking (2014), and Mistake-Proofing Leadership (2010) with Rudy Williams.


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