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Lean Projects Are Defined by Lean Behaviors

by Hal on August 18, 2009

in leadership, lean

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The structure of part of a DNA double helix
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Ifollow numerous blogs, news groups and twitter posts on lean. I've noticed a change in the last few months from talking about lean tools to talking about lean behaviors. It's a refreshing change. Toyota made a shift early this century in the way they spoke about their approach. In essence, they started speaking about the Toyota Way vs. the Toyota Production System. Under the TPS, the two pillars were Just-in-Time production and Jidoka (autonomation). Now they speak about the two pillars of continuous improvement and respect for people. It's a shift from tools to tool users. I don't think that Toyota made a big shift in the way they manage. Rather, they noticed something different about what they do on an everyday basis. It's exactly that noticing that we all should pay attention to for our own operations.

Lean is a mindset. It's not a set of practices. Greg Howell, my colleague and business partner, characterizes lean as a constant focus on learning…learning from everything that happens on an everyday basis. Lean companies are learning faster than their competitors. But what does that mean? How do they do that? Steven Spear, co-author of Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System and author of Chasing the Rabbit, offers an insight on what Toyota and other lean companies are doing.

Spear identifies 4 capabilities of lean companies.

  1. Design processes in a way that participants in the process see opportunities for learning. Make anomalies, incidents and problems jump out in the process of performing the work.
  2. Swarm the anomalies, incidents and problems. Bring people quickly together at the site of the problem, with the people who were present to the problem, and immediately when the problem occurs. The intent is to study the incident (problem) to get to the root cause. It's all about learning.
  3. Share what you learn with all relevant parties in your company. Do it immediately. Do it extensively.
  4. Lead the company in a way that others develop the above three capabilities. In other words, create people who are intent on learning everyday from what is occurring while doing the everyday work of the company.

Pretty straight forward. Not so easy to do,

What can we do on our projects? Some will say that project managers and others who coordinate the work on projects are already dealing with the anomalies and problems on projects. Just ask a construction superintendent what he does at the beginning of every day. He's apt to tell you that he's figuring out how he will get yesterday's work done. But that is not what I am writing about. There is an approach for getting project work done every day. It's the Last Planner® System (LPS). The LPS brings stability to projects so that project managers and coordinators are freed to focus on the future. They are also available to use their ingenuity and time to address the little things and not-so-little things that come up everyday. It's time they have to swarm, learn and share that learning with others that sets them apart from most project managers.

Oh…one last thing…the big opportunity that lean companies and projects demonstrate is managers-as-teachers. The primary role of anyone that is managing or leading others is to build the competence of the people doing the everyday work. It's not problem-solving. It's not directing the work. It's not checking on others. All that can be done while doing the work. Lean companies put their attention on learning at every chance they can. It's a behavior change.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Claude Emond August 19, 2009 at 6:50 am

Could not agree more Hal. Best practices without the right behaviors do not work. Cheers from Montreal. Claude

2 Fred O. Newton August 20, 2009 at 10:42 am

As a ‘Lean’ practitioner for several years now I am continually surprised and amazed at the initial attitudes of many Company executives when we first start talking to them about becoming a ‘Lean’ company. Too many of them view this journey as a one shot project or effort, then they are done!

When we explain to them that it is a journey and a continous learning and subsequently changing environment for them and all of their employees they start pushing back! ‘We don’t really have time for that type of a cultural change!’ Is a rather standard comment and attitude I see all too often.

But those that are willing to learn, start and execute the journey are the companies that are and will be read about in the list of succesful companies for years to come!

Thanks for all of the great information that is being put on this web site! Those that read and become part of the ‘Lean World’ are reaping the benefits today and will continue long into the future!

3 Robert Camp August 22, 2009 at 3:41 pm


I think it bodes well for US industry that there are so many minds arriving at the same point of understanding about Lean. If we really do develop a Green economy based on Green manufacturing, it will be minds like yours and Greg’s who will lead. We are lucky to have men who have been at this as long as the two of you and who are already providing strong leadership. May you continue for the benefit of the rest of us.

Keep up the great work. Best wishes.

4 Narendra Khanna August 24, 2009 at 6:08 am

Seems to be a straightforward requirement – look for people who WANT to learn all the time. Is this considered by HR departments when evaluating potential employees?

Project teams undergo a lot of stress – large, diversely skilled teams, often not familiar with software (imposed due to various reasons), formats not that clear, languages (Eng need not be the first language) and so on. An organisation wanting to grow is at a macrocosmic level – how do you evaluate if each employee wants to grow?

5 Elisabeth Bucci August 26, 2009 at 1:48 pm

Love love this post. However, it’s the last paragraph that blew me away: “The primary role of anyone that is managing or leading others is to build the competence of the people doing the everyday work. ” Which leads to the questions: (1) how many managers / leaders really understand this? (too few in my opinion) and (2) what will it take to make the behaviourial changes necessary to achieve this?

Now there’s a couple of loaded questions…


6 Daniel November 23, 2009 at 2:29 pm

As one who has been on the product development side in the semiconductor industry for 16 years, I truly welcome the lean approach to project management. All too often, customer needs change not too far into development and subsequently churn in product requirements must immediately follow and so some percentage of time upfront defining all the requirements to the nth degree is wasted. We are exploring lean now to comprehend what it means for our business. Glad I found this info.


7 Andy December 17, 2009 at 2:50 am

I think the key is to get not just the managers to buy into ‘lean’, but to have the entire organization collaborate. I find making project reporting and progress visible have all kinds of beneficial effects throughout a company. So yes, I agree with you, sharing is key.

8 Elaine @ O2 ideas room December 21, 2009 at 11:14 am

Hal, thanks for your post. This is an extremely interesting topic. I particularly like your discussion of Steven Spears capabilities of ‘lean companies’. Ed Naughton is also an advocate of these processes as highlighted with his blog post on the O2 ideas room.

Thanks again for the post,

Elaine @ O2 ideas room

9 MCP UK January 17, 2010 at 10:34 pm

Great Post on Lean Tool and Lean Behaviors. So true, If you want to achieve success in lean manufacturing you need reliable equipment, and this can only be achieved by addressing your maintenance issues.

10 Anthony January 19, 2010 at 9:20 am

Excellent post! As a project manager for an interactive agency, I could not agree more that the focus needs to be on the progress of active learning. Our industry changes constantly, so education is an absolute necessity, however most are not actively learning about how to make their work more efficient. Industry and other learning initiatives must spill over into the everyday grind of the workplace – it’s not enough to constantly learn about internet marketing, for instance, but how to make all of the daily opportunities work toward the goal of creating a lean, mean agency.

11 Polypropylene Membrane Filters January 27, 2010 at 3:43 am

Nice post.
I particularly like your discussion on Steven Spears capabilities of ‘lean companies’. It’s really interesting.

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