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7 Tips to Build Good (Lean) Behavior (+PDF)

My dad lives in the Chicago area. His house has been buried in multiple snowstorms over the course of this winter. A few weeks back, he was driving somewhere during the time when the kids in his neighborhood were walking to school. Along one of the arterials, there are no houses that face the road, so the sidewalks hadn’t been shoveled. As a result, the kids were all walking in the street to get to class.

My dad is retired, so has a little free time on his hands. He decided to take his snow blower the quarter mile or so up the sidewalk to keep the kids out of the street.

Blizzard Snow

Good (Lean) Behavior is Contagious

After the next snow, he started to do the same thing. Only this time, as he turned the corner, he saw another person with a snow blower clearing the sidewalk from the other end, coming toward him. And after the most recent snowfall, there was a third good citizen who was clearing snow in the middle of the sidewalk.

In this case, the positive behavior was contagious. When people saw someone else doing a helpful act, they mimicked it.

It is a little more complicated than that in your company, though. Here are seven tips leaders can use to improve their team’s Lean behavior.

  1. Define what good, Lean behavior is. People generally want to do the right thing. Unfortunately, the right thing is not always clear. For example, people might think that the right thing is to not ‘rat out’ another employee. Lean wants problems and abnormal conditions exposed. See the disconnect? Leaders have to make sure that doing the right thing doesn’t have a high cost to team members.
  2. Set the example. Leaders can’t talk about the virtues of great 5S from a horribly disorganized office. People will do what leaders do, not what the boss says.
  3. Reward good, Lean behaviors. If a leader says to pull the andon cord, possibly stopping the line when there is a problem, they should thank people for stopping the line. If they act irritated or stressed, they are sending the wrong message.
  4. Stop rewarding wrong behaviors. We love a hero. On the shop floor, that is the person who miraculously pulls a part from a secret stash, or bypasses a process to ‘make things happen.’ As long as leaders reward that sort of heroism, there will be little focus on fixing processes.
  5. Make systems support Lean behaviors. Back to that andon cord. If nothing happens when people pull it, they will stop using it. If team members collect data, and the information is never analyzed, they will stop collecting it. If a leader tells his team to log problems, but no help ever comes, do you think they will keep spending time writing issues down?
  6. Build the right team. This goes back to the story about my dad. When people see others exhibiting good behavior, they are more likely to continue it. Think of a break room. If it is immaculate, people will be reluctant to leave a mess. If there are crumbs, trash, old magazines and newspapers, and dirty dishes everywhere, people seem to be much less likely to clean up after themselves. The same holds true with jobs like customer service, and with characteristics like commitment to quality. People match the behaviors of those around them.
  7. Eliminate problem vendors, customers, and even employees. This is a last resort, but there is a point that fixing a problem gets too costly. If a vendor doesn’t meet quality standards after repeated attempts to work with them to improve, get a new vendor. If a customer has expectations that are unreasonable and is too hard (i.e. unprofitable) to work with, nothing says you have to keep doing business with them. If an employee chooses not to show Lean behavior, they may not be a good match for the team. I want to stress that firing someone should be a last resort. But some people just don’t want to work for a Lean company. As harsh as it sounds, a clean break for those people can be less painful than prolonged conflict.

Here’s the final comment on this subject. Poor employee behavior is seldom the employee’s fault. It is the responsibility of the leader to make the employee want to do what is right for the company. How? By focusing on the ‘What’s In It For Me?’ principle. That means making Lean behavior more desirable to the employee than non-Lean behaviors. It is far easier to lead someone who wants to get to the same destination than someone who has to be dragged along.



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Share Your Thoughts    |2 comments|

Practical Guide Info


  • Jeff Hajek says:


    Thanks for the comment.

    It’s funny that we even use the term firefighting. When you think of what firefighters do, most of it is preparation and prevention. They inspect buildings to find possible ignition sources and fuels. They keep their equipment in tip-top shape. They are constantly training and drilling. They build community relationships.

    Very little of their time is actually spent stomping out fires.


  • Tim McMahon says:

    Nice post Jeff. I find that many of our reward and recognition systems rewarding fire fighting and heros. This is a hard one to break but absolutely need to change the culture. Need to reward and recognize team problem solving at the root cause.

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