Lean Leadership: Rocks and Mortar


Shaw-an', the Hebrew word for Lean, means “to lean on, trust, or support.” I don’t believe there is an official Lean definition to describe removing waste or applying value-add activities; but I do find it very interesting that some of the earliest forms of this definition consist of describing lean as “to support.” Support what, you ask? In a Lean Enterprise, Lean would be supporting the Enterprise or the customer.

In a Lean House, the walls and base support the roof. As with any house, finding the perfect spot to build and use of the right mortar is the difference between it lasting for ten years or for hundreds. Some argue that the only thing needed for the walls and the base are process, standardization, and stability. These are very important and crucial, but I would ask you to consider additionally, an organization that is inherently Lean. They think they are built on a Lean foundation, yet still struggle with employee turnover, motivation, and sustainability with new ideas. Is it possible that where “Lean” is built-in and what the walls are comprised of, could affect the long term status of the enterprise?

Bricks and mortar are often overlooked aspects that help keep the house together for the long haul. What are the bricks and the mortar in this sense? The mortar is the applying of discipline to the people and the bricks are aligning the dreams of the people to the purpose. The bricks and mortar have everything to do with the PEOPLE in a Lean Enterprise. People come from different backgrounds, religions, successes, failures, experiences, and ideologies. People are what make or break an Enterprise. They are the one thing that can single-handedly inhibit an Enterprise from experiencing Lean at its fullest. Employees are the most untapped resource of potential in most Enterprises today.


Lack of Discipline

George Washington once said, “Discipline is the soul of an army. It makes small numbers formidable; procures success to the weak, and esteem to all.” Lean often begins at 5S where we sort, set, shine, and standardize - yet has short term sustainment. But why only short term? Not enough visual management? Constant change within the enterprise? Those things are possible. But let’s say we have all those met, then what?

When an organization reaches the step of realizing they have implemented Lean, yet still struggle in certain areas, they have reached the most crucial point in their Lean Journey. Do they stay the course and continue their Lean efforts? Or turn to frustration - which is typically followed by layoffs and or using parts of Lean that are comfortable and less complex as disciplining their people. Discipline is the mortar to keeping the Lean walls from collapsing. Discipline does not mean old school “paddle whoopings,” threats, blaming people, or public humiliation. The discipline I am talking about has respect for people and truly cares about improving the quality of both their personal and professional lives.

Discipline has many components, but the ones we will cover are Training, Culture Building, and Encouragement. No standardization of process or lean tool can remedy a lack of discipline.


Lean Training and Culture Building

I once heard someone say that “discipline is like muscle; the more you train, the stronger it will be.” Training is crucial to discipline, understanding Lean, and being able to apply it to your work and personal life. The basis of Lean training is converting one’s mind from traditional (solution) thinking to lean (problem solving) thinking. Lean training consists of two parties; a student and a teacher. “The student is a learner. The student maintains sober judgment of their knowledge and capabilities, and constantly seeks to improve their individual skill-set with the willingness to learn new things.” The teacher knows how to translate knowledge, show respect, empower, and provide a trust environment for the student to learn without fear of making mistakes. When these two groups work together with action and check- adjusts, lean training can progress.

When the student receives adequate Lean training, there will be a time when they realize that Lean is not just what the organization demands of them, but is a principle that applies to their entire life. I like to call this the “Lean Light Bulb Effect.” In order to change the culture, you must change someone’s mind enough for them to conclude that Lean works in every aspect of life (thus by default creating a Lean Culture). When Lean Culture overtakes our organization, we get root cause problem solving and an incredible place to come to work every day.

The “Lean Light Bulb Effect” happens at different times for every person. As mentioned earlier, every person is different, thus it is impossible to say when someone will have this occurrence. But as an organization and teachers, we need to be respectful to these differences and do everything we can to accommodate them. As we know some differences are harder to teach than others. Patience and persistence of Lean training is key.


King Solomon says in an old proverb that “it is better to be esteemed, then to be given great riches.” Discipline comes from building people up with encouragement. King Solomon provides some lean insight to people when he says “esteem others.” The fact that he uses the word “esteeming others” rather than “paying others” is interesting. It’s unfortunate that many organizations use pay as a primary source to get what they want. Encouragement can be used as a discipline by motivating people to do a extraordinary job in what they do every day. Just think, if we could get organizations to improve their ability to praise people, they would spend less money with raises and see a significant decrease in employee turnover due to higher moral. Lean organizations must look at esteeming its people as an opportunity to build a stronger organization. No raise in pay or reward can take the place of encouragement.


Dream Alignment to the Purpose of the Organization

“Show people how their work is important to the purpose of the business. Know what is important and constantly make it visual. Show people how to execute the steps toward the vision and importance of PDCA.” -LeanCor Academy 2012

Creating a clear vision of the Enterprise that aligns with the dreams of its people are the rocks of a Lean Enterprise. People want to dream and they want to consciously or non-consciously be able to say at the end of their lives, “I made a difference.” They want to see that it’s not all about making money, but building relationships, giving back, and living their dreams. According to a blog post entitled, “Regrets of the Dying (hyperlink below);” the number one regret people had while on their death bed was, “I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” Enterprises can align dreams and visions together, thus building the dreams of the people into the vision. Take into consideration the start up of an organization. The owner’s dreams are typically the start up vision of the organization. Owners are the hardest workers in the organization. They volunteered countless hours in the start up phase and continue to give way more time than for what they’re paid. It’s the owner’s dreams that most organizations’ people are living. What if we were living our own in correlation with the vision of the organization?

What if we could align the dreams of the people to the organization? How much more efficient would our work be? How much more profitable would the organization be? How much happier would the people be?


“Leadership is communicating to people their worth and potential so clearly that they come to see it in themselves. It is the influence we have with others to help discover their own voice, to find their own purpose, to make their unique contribution, and to release their potential.”-Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Organizations who are seeking to build a Lean Enterprise will see a shift in more Lean Thinkers and Doers if they apply these principles to their people. Follow these principles on your Lean Journey and the Lean Enterprise will surely be yours.

Written by Tim Hall, Lean Logistics Specialist at LeanCor


  1. http://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/hebrew/nas/shaan-2.html
  2. People – Steve Gran, Robert Martichenko, Walt Miller, and Roger Pearce
  3. Everything I Know About Lean I Learned in First Grade – Robert Martichenko
  4. http://www.inspirationandchai.com/Regrets-of-the-Dying.html
  5. The Book of Proverbs
  6. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Posted by LeanCor Supply Chain Group

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LeanCor Supply Chain Group is a trusted supply chain partner that specializes in lean principles to deliver operational improvement. LeanCor’s three integrated divisions – LeanCor Training and Education, LeanCor Consulting, and LeanCor Logistics – help organizations eliminate waste, drive down costs, and build a culture of continuous improvement.

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