Building Lean Habits, in a Lean Way

By Jon Miller Updated on April 8th, 2019

Our podcast with Atomic Habits author James Clear posed some interesting questions that we can ask ourselves when striving to practice and become Lean. Chiefly among them is, “Who is the type of person who could be Lean?”

One of the main ideas in the book is to build identify-based habits. The claim is that the key to lasting change is to create a new identity first, recognizing that our current behaviors are a reflection of our current identity. In other words, what we do now is a reflection of the type of person we consciously or subconsciously believe that we are. This idea is nothing new, as people have long observed that our thoughts become our actions, and that our actions become our destiny. He gives detailed steps in the podcast and the book on how to change our mindsets and behaviors. These are notable for their consistency with familiar principles of Lean thinking.

Lean transformation can be viewed as replacing bad habits with good ones at the organizational level. Organizations are made up of people, and leaders by definition have an outside influence on others. Therefore, change must begin with and be supported by the leadership in order to succeed and sustain. To put it another way, chances of success are negligible unless the leaders ask themselves the identify-based behavior questions, “What type organization would…” and “What type of leader would…” demonstrate the desired behaviors of Lean in order to succeed. Luckily, there is a finite and knowable set of leadership and organizational behaviors which we can observe from the failures and successes of others. There are plenty of documented role models to adopt for identity-based Lean habits. Finding what to do is easy. Getting started and continuing in the face of challenges is harder.

How does the approach in Atomic Habits help organizations and individuals on the Lean journey of behavior change? Many of its ideas are identical to Lean principles and easy to adopt. These include making changes a little bit at a time, planning for and reflecting on failures, and keeping triggers of good behaviors visible and close at hand. Measuring and rewarding progress in smaller increments is also consistent with the daily management aspect of Lean, often seen in the form of daily huddles to review performance metrics, problem-solve, communicate and align efforts across the team. Forming good habits requires resisting the temptation of immediate rewards and having a long-term focus. This is hard because it requires us to resist our biological nature. A form of mistake-proofing helps, by increasing the number of steps between you and triggers of bad behaviors. On the flip side, we are encouraged to simplify the process flow by reducing the number of steps between you and the good behaviors. In short, practicing the Atomic Habits approach to behavior change on our Lean journey also allows us to reinforce us many Lean principles and values in the process.

Culture is the identity of an organization. Vision and mission statements are our imagined identify. These are almost always aspirational statements, rather than descriptions of the current reality. They describe the type of organization we want to become, what we wish to do and for whom. The desired organizational identity is a mental target condition. The actual behaviors and artifacts are the evidence of our culture. Only when we have a clear vision, or target identity as comparison, can we work on our bad habits. The first answer to the identity-based habit question, “Who is the type of person who will succeed with behavior change?” must be “A person who is honest with themselves.” Honesty, integrity and fact-based reflection are the basic condition for success in individual or organizational behavior change.

  1. Fabio

    April 26, 2019 - 7:35 pm

    Hi Jon. Thanks for your article. That’s the hardest part in the lean journey. But, absolutely the ones who understand it lead their companies at a certainly the next level, at least.

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