Subsidiarity: A (Medieval) Lean Principle

By Ron Pereira Updated on May 23rd, 2017

Guest Post by Mark R. Hamel of Gemba Tales

OK, there probably weren’t many lean practitioners in the Middle Ages, but Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century theologian, philosopher and all around brainiac did play a significant role in developing the concept of subsidiarity.

So, what the heck is subsidiarity?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, subsidiarity is the notion that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level. This principle should be applied within government, the military, business and the gemba.

Now this does not mean that the plant floor, office, lab, field, clinic, etc. becomes a venue for democratic rule (Hey, let’s take a vote. Should we adhere to this standard work today?). No, properly applied subsidiarity IS a lean principle. It facilitates a bunch of things, including:

  • Developing, involving and empowering the workforce. For example, natural work teams, whether they are comprised of manufacturing leads and operators or a physician, nurse and medical assistant, need to feel that they own the process and its performance. They also need to feel, in the context of standard work, that they can and must identify issues and opportunities and apply daily kaizen.
  • Ensuring that the right people make the right decisions at the right time in the right place. We all know how central planning worked for the Soviet Union. Why let people who are not at the gemba tell those who are what to do (tactically speaking)? The worker-executed standard work, worker-managed visual controls and the worker’s immediate proximity to the process mean that they should be able to identify abnormal conditions before anybody else and then respond within the structure of a certain escalation protocol (think jidoka). Those at the local level also do not need a “middle man.” For example, on more than a few occasions when I was helping people develop production kanban systems, the planning guys wanted the kanban card to come to them, so that they could then schedule the line! HUH?! Why don’t we just give you planning guys the wristwatches of the guys running the line, so you can tell them what time it is as well?
  • Keeping leaders focused on the right stuff. Lean leaders should be focused on the system and the related process adherence/performance, while also coaching others and providing necessary resources (think lean management systems). By staying within their bailiwick, they can better attend to the breakthrough objectives of the value stream, business unit, etc. and help develop a lean culture. Lean leaders should not be micro-managers and they should not be a barrier to continuous flow, especially the flow of information and ideas.

What do you think?

So, what do you think? Do you have an example of effective or ineffective applications of the principal of subsidiarity?

Mark R. Hamel, a senior lean six sigma implementation consultant, shares his humble insights on lean at Gemba Tales and is the author of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers published Kaizen Event Fieldbook: Foundation, Framework, and Standard Work for Effective Events. He can be reached at mark, over at kaizenfieldbook dot com.

  1. Lee

    February 15, 2010 - 10:36 am

    I once worked with a department director who’s motto was “Hire the best people, give them the best tools, then get out of their way.” Subsidiarity is ‘getting out of the way’ of those who know how to do something.

  2. Mark R Hamel

    February 15, 2010 - 8:54 pm

    Hi Lee,

    Thanks for the comment. Pretty good summary of subsidiarity. It takes a certain amount of humility and commitment to the development of the organization to “get out of the way.”

  3. Matt Hayes

    February 16, 2010 - 8:57 am

    I really like you second point about making sure the right people make the decision. Too many times I see managers “make the call” when, in fact, they should have at least asked us employees for our input.

  4. Mark R Hamel

    February 16, 2010 - 9:50 am

    Hi Lee,

    Good point! The problem with managers making the call is that they often make the wrong call (not gemba-based enough), often make the call too late (they can’t be there real-time), and most importantly, they dis-empower and disengage the worker (no respect there). In the end, the individual’s and the organization’s growth are stunted, not to mention that it kills the capacity for lean transformation.

  5. Mark R Hamel

    February 16, 2010 - 9:56 am


    Sorry about that! I directed my last response to Lee. Nothing like a public brain lapse to keep me humble!

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