Lean is All About People – Or is It? 1 of 2

By Jon Miller Updated on March 11th, 2018

Lean is all about people. Few get very far arguing against this proposition because, when you do, you lose the people. As with any socio-technical system, engaging the people plays a large part in the success of lean. It feels good to say this because we are people, and it makes us feel important. Perhaps we say this to correct traditional approaches to improving quality, speed or cost that placed blame or burden on people. Is lean really “all about people”?

The English expression, “it’s all about…” does not mean “it’s only about” or that “it is 100% concerned with” something. The expression means that “it” is the most important factor in a particular situation. In that sense, is it true that “lean is all about people?” Is the people factor the most important one? What are other factors that we need to weigh? There are three, including people.

Flow. We live in a universe in which we experience events across time. Time passes without regard to humans. Humans have a limited amount of time to live. We have no control over the wealth or genes we are born with, only over how we spend our time. Lean helps us to transform our resources of knowledge, energy and money into higher-value goods, services and experiences. When people value our output they reward us via an exchange for something we value. The more such value we can create and trade in the limited time we have, the better our lives become. Working in a flow allows higher value output with less input of resources and time.

This “flow” is not to be confused with the immersed, energized and focused flow state that psychologists describe. These are two separate things. The flow behavior in a lean system does not rely on human perception or experience to exist. It is inherent in the way that resources move through capacity-constrained processes in our time-dimensioned universe.

The way of working that is in opposition to flow is batch-and-queue. Much of lean is concerned with recognizing and reducing batch sizes. Batches are everywhere, not only in manufacturing but whenever we commit time or resources to any endeavor. In general, larger batches increase costs and slow down the flow of information back from the customer. Various lean methods such as SMED, TPM, takt-flow-pull, cell design, 3P, kanban etc. aim to reduce transaction costs that are linked to batching. As batch sizes go down, speed and quality improve. This results in lower cost. This is a virtuous cycle. When processing costs are reduced without regard to flow, quality and speed can suffer, raising total cost. When batches are reduced, faster information feedback loops allow the possibility to learn and make adjustments faster. This has a greater long-term benefits on productivity and inventories than the initial reduction in speed through the queue from batch size reduction. In research and development environments, new product launches or business startups this can mean the difference between life and death.

For those interested in a deeper dive on this topic, Don Reinertsen’s one-hour keynote The Practical Science of Batch Size is excellent. Viewing speed of 2X is recommended for native English speakers.

Arguably, “lean is all about flow”.


Tune in next week for the exciting conclusion.

  1. John Hunter

    March 12, 2018 - 10:18 am

    I think there are a number of necessary conditions and without them even whatever people think is the most important don’t make the difference. The interactions between the components are extremely important. Rather than the analytic view to focus on individual pieces I think the key to good management systems are a focus on the organization as a system.

    • Jon Miller

      March 12, 2018 - 11:46 am

      “It’s all about the interaction between the components of the system” is another option I suppose. But it doesn’t offer a very easy handle for people to grasp. The so-called lean system is actually a set of systems, quite complex when you map it out. Synthesis is useless without analysis, since understanding how components interact requires that we understand the components themselves. What people think is the most makes a difference if it biases them towards that factor and blinds them to the importance of others, which goes back to your point of the need to see the bigger picture also.

  2. John Hunter

    March 14, 2018 - 12:00 pm

    “But it doesn’t offer a very easy handle for people to grasp. The so-called lean system is actually a set of systems, quite complex when you map it out.”

    I agree. It is helpful to make things simple to appreciate and understand – bearing in mind of course:

    “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

    I think often in management people demand that things be made more simple than is possible to adequately understand the systems involved. This of course leads to problems. A huge value provided by people like Russell Ackoff is their ability to help explain what is needed in fairly simple terms. Still understanding how these ideas are being expressed in our management systems and how to apply the concepts to our management systems is still a challenge.

    Good lean thinking (lean manufacturing…) efforts do a great deal to help this process. Even when they oversimplify (which I think is often) they get closer to appreciating the overall management system than nearly any other management framework. I believe it is possible to make things “more simple than possible” more effectively than other instances of making things “more simple than possible.” I think one of the big differences between the best lean efforts and the others is the increased value placed on deeper understanding and thinking systemically.

  3. France Bergeron

    March 17, 2018 - 5:31 am

    Absolutely Jon, Lean is about flow. But I would argue that flow state (when one’s feel his/her best and performs at his/her best) is actually also part of Lean. Lean is about solving problems every day. Flow state (a massive dump of chemicals in the brain) happens often when you solve problems. Many organizations now understand that flow states will bring the performance, creativity and learning of their teams much beyond what they have now!

  4. Tom

    March 20, 2018 - 4:09 am

    I prefer to describe Lean as a team sport. Sure people are often an important aspect of many processes in so much as they are most often suppliers, customers and operators and our role as Lean practitioners is to facilitate the teams ownership of their improvement of that process to better achieve the desired outcomes. Improving flow is one aspect of a Lean engagement but more importantly a successful Lean team is one where the cultural changes have been embedded to ensure no blame, process ownership and continuous improvement.

    Ultimately Lean is I guess about organisational culture and people are a part of that.

  5. Claire Everett

    April 26, 2018 - 11:22 pm

    I believe that flow was created because of respect for people. Forcing people to working systems that are filled with waste is disrespectful towards people. When we create flow in a system it is necessary to remove significant amounts of the waste from the system. When we remove the waste from the system we show respect for peoples time and abilities.

    To answer ‘is Lean all about people’ you must decide which comes first, flow or respect for people. I’m sure this could be successfully argued both ways, in my opinion flow as an outcome of respect for people makes more sense than respect for people as an outcome of flow.

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