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This Lean blog is dedicated to providing useful Lean information that both changes the way you think about continuous improvement, and gives you tools to act on those changes. It is the only blog backed by The Continuous Improvement Companion, our extensive Lean reference guide.

It’s just business.” That has to be one of the all-time worst expressions to come from the corporate world. The intent is to make people feel better about themselves when they are hurting others in order to get ahead. If you read into those three little words, the meaning is that the people that are affected by decisions are irrelevant.

The truth is, though, that unless you have some massive advantage at your disposal, you can’t get away with treating people badly for very long. And even if you do have some sort of leverage, it is still fundamentally wrong to mistreat people. Ethics and morals should not change because of the strength of a balance sheet.

But the need to build relationships in continuous improvement goes far beyond personal values. Because so much waste gets removed from a Lean organization, there is very little margin for error. That means that when a problem occurs, teamwork takes on a completely different level of importance when compared to a typical organization.


There are no specific prerequisites for this section. You should, however, be starting on the “Committing” phase of your journey.

Section Details

Estimated Time for Section: Ongoing principle.

Difficulty: High. Adhering to this principle often takes fundamental shifts in behaviors.

Risk: High. Getting this principle wrong means that people won’t be able to work together well. It may not affect teams significantly early on, but the as you try to integrate more advanced cultural changes, you’ll see problems.

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Creating a new corporate culture is a monumental challenge in the best of circumstances. Unfortunately, many organizations make it more difficult on themselves than it needs to be. Often these self-imposed obstacles seem trivial, but can have an oversized impact because of their repetitive nature.

The way you store information is one of these forms of barriers. As you progress on your Lean journey, you will find that there is a load of knowledge and information that you must manage effectively. You will have training materials, both internally developed and content that you have purchased. You will have loads of forms and other sorts of tools that will be used throughout the organization. You will have calendars, checklists, evaluations, audit documentation, and more. And that does not even include your process documents or best practices.

The easier it is to find and share information without corrupting the versions the document, the easier your journey will be.


You must have a program leader selected prior to developing your knowledge management system.

Section Details

Estimated Time for Section: >1 Day

The time for this task is fairly minimal to get started. Setting up the folder structure and creating the core process will not take long. There is quite a bit of ongoing work, though, to make sure the system adapts to your changing requirements as well as to make sure that the organization adheres to the process.

Difficulty: Low

Setting up the folder structure and creating the core process is fairly simple. It will, however, be increasingly difficult down the road as the amount of continuous improvement knowledge you are managing grows at an accelerating pace.

Risk: Medium

The risk of getting this step wrong is more related to psychology than technology. Any mistakes you make in your structure can be fairly easily fixed through cut and paste efforts, though it can be time-consuming. Unfortunately, though, those mistakes will have an impact on the people using the system. If they find it difficult to locate what they’re looking for, or unwieldy to maintain their documentation, they will tally the problem in the “reasons Lean does not work” category.

In the early stages of a cultural shift, every hiccup in a process has a potential to contribute to derailing the transformation. Because people will be relying on information extensively, the impact of a poor knowledge management process will be amplified.

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Lean leadership and the two neural domains

By Karen Wilhelm

Note from Jeff: In recent months, I have been working to collaborate with a group of fellow Lean bloggers to enhance the Lean community. While we are still in the infancy of figuring out all the different ways this group can work together, we are experimenting with innovative ways to get our message out. One such idea is getting some peer review of our articles. I look forward to working more with Karen, Matt, and Chris in the future.

Toyota’s two pillars of management are respect for people and continuous improvement. Respect for people obviously calls on the DMN, the “default mode” neural network associated with emotion and relationships. Continuous improvement does not neglect the people factor, but it does require methodical data collection and analysis — TPN (task positive network) activities. We have seen in earlier posts in this series that good leaders can smoothly switch networks depending on the situation.

Your Brain on Lean

Your Brain on Lean

When the leader chooses the mode that resonates most with the one the team members’ are in, outcomes are better. The TPN mode is a good choice when helping people focus on standard work, production goals, data collection, and problem analysis. Creative situations where leaders are teaching, or team members are developing improvement ideas, require more DMN time.

Policy deployment and problem solving are two other lean processes that involve contrasting brain activities. The hard analysis that shows up on an A3 single-page problem analysis tool calls on the task network. The people network applies to both policy deployment and problem solving, in catchball or socializing processes, where people at different levels and in different functional departments consider, make suggestions, and ultimately agree.

Not all leaders — or team members — are good at understanding and switching between modes. There are some ways leaders can choose to get better at switching however. They can exploit the use of leader standard work to include deliberate talking and listening pauses. In manufacturing, where many leaders come from engineering or production backgrounds, they can set aside time each day to coach (DMN) a supervisor or workgroup — and that fits with the “coaching kata” concept Mike Rother has learned from Toyota.

See Part 1 of the series on Karen’s Lean Reflections blog, and Part 2 on Matt Wrye’s Beyond Lean blog.

Peer Comments…

How can understanding your neural networks help you be a better leader? Here’s what some lean leaders say:

Matt Wrye: This research has helped me learn to be more purposeful in understanding what type of leadership I should be using in different situations.  I have used the suggestion of incorporating it into my standardized work for the day. 

Having a better understanding of ourselves and why we may do things helps us become better leaders for any situation.

Chris Paulsen:  This is exciting news!  Many leaders have not really achieved the right balance between the two domains so there are many who can become better leaders just by practicing the use of both.  I know that I have seen leaders strike a better balance when they have made the effort.  This research shows that while we have a natural bent, we can develop the skills needed to be great leaders.

 Guest Author Bio: Karen Wilhelm is a business blogger and freelance writer covering lean as applied in many domains. She has been blogging at Lean Reflections ( eight years and has more than 20 years experience in manufacturing and management.

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One of the biggest barriers to standardization is fluctuating short-term demand. Long term changes in demand can be managed by hiring staff or by attrition, but when there is significant variation day to day or even hour to hour, it just isn’t practical to hire new people for the handful of hours when workload exceeds demand. Conversely, it is inefficient and expensive to pay people when there is not enough work.

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One of the jobs of a leader is to set clear expectations. There are two implications here. The first is that she must understand, very clearly, what she wants her team to do. The second is that she must know what her team is actually doing. And, of course, the manager and employee must be in alignment on the expectation. That’s not to say that they will always agree on whether the expectation is fair or valid. But they should both at least have the same understanding of what the expectation is.

In some cases, expectations become complicated when measurement is introduced. A common problem is that the qualitative expectations, such as keeping customers satisfied or maintaining timely communication, don’t match the qualitative expectations related to the core tasks a person is expected to accomplish.

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Most people understand that if there is no standard process, it is hard for other individuals to come in and help out when things go wrong. What is less commonly understood is that simply establishing consistent methods is not enough to support teamwork. The process must be configured in a manner that allows a person to receive help when they need it. Often, even with a standardized process in place, if a person gets in a bind, the helper can do little more than stand around and watch or hand the operator an occasional tool.

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About the Gotta Go Lean Blog

The Gotta Go Lean Blog focuses on Lean at the front line. We help managers and employees work together to make Lean more productive for the company, and jobs more satisfying for workers.

To help you make your continuous improvement efforts more effective, our Lean blog offers a variety of different types of articles. You may see traditional articles, Lean terminology, videos, and podcasts.

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