December 26

How to Use Lean Management to Transform Your Business


Lean Management is your secret weapon to building a continuous improvement culture.

In this article, we’ll explore what lean management is and how you can use it to empower your employees, so they implement lean, autonomously. 

What’s a lean management system? A lean management system is a model that helps drive continuous improvement and embed it into the organisation. It consists of the following key activities:

  • Lean strategic planning and deployment across the business
  • Standard work
  • Visual Management
  • Developing and coaching people
  • Accountability

The lean management system is a framework for managers and leaders to allow them to lead and develop their people, whilst achieving company objectives and embedding a lean culture.

With these 4 elements combined, you can create a powerful continuous improvement system. This is built around driving accountability, improving performance and developing employees. 

In order for this to happen, leaders must adopt the same standards – the same way of leading and coaching others. They also must ensure that the lean system works and is being followed. This drives accountability and ownership.

With all these elements combined, you’ll start to develop a continuous improvement culture.

Here’s the lean management system in more detail:

Lean Management

1. Lean Strategic Planning and Deployment

Do you want to communicate your business objectives to everyone in an effective way?

What about aligning them to your goals, so everyone knows how they have a part to play?

Do you also want to create a high performing team culture, which is empowered to make decisions and achieve these targets?

What about holding people accountable for actions and achievements…Whilst fostering innovation at all levels of the business?

This is where lean strategy deployment plays a big part in a lean management system.  It encompasses 2 key objectives:

  1. We must first identify what the business is trying to achieve (Set the context in our model, above)
  2. Empower all employees to identify how they’re going to do it and then put it into action (The rest of the wheel in our model)

The Problem With Traditional Strategic Planning

Current strategic planning has many flaws. 

  1. There’s often too many priorities – Once goal setting has finished, there’s often a deluge of priorities, which can be overwhelming.
  2. There’s insufficient detail – no-one knows with clarity, exactly how things are going to get done. They just know the top level goals.
  3. There’s a lack of active reviews – People blindly work towards the top level goals and don’t check in often enough to see if what they’re doing is making a difference.
  4. Not everyone feels a part of the objectives- often they can’t see how their role helps achieve the bigger picture

Lean Strategy Deployment

The above can all be achieved through the concept of lean strategy deployment. 

Lean strategy deployment is conducted in 3 steps:

  1. Provide two-way communication (often called catch-ball) up and down the hierarchy
  2. Ensure that each level creates their own goals and actions in support of the objectives
  3. Provide consistent Plan-Do-Check-Act cycles to make breakthrough change

Lean strategy deployment focuses on efficient communication. When this is achieved, organisations can work together in pursuit of common goals.

It was Ken Blanchard in his book ‘The One Minute Manager,’ that said:

The productivity of a work group seems to depend on how the group members see their own goals in relation to the goals of the organization.

Strategy Deployment helps achieve this in a simple yet efficient way, where everyone takes part – no matter where you are in the business and what you do. 



Step 1: Once goals are set, the whole act of catch-ball means that top level management feed the goals down…often to departments.

Step 2: Each department then plans what they’ll do and how they’ll do it, including timescales, budgets, activities, targets, resource needed, etc.

Step 3: This is then reviewed with the senior leaders to get agreement and alignment.

Step 4: Whilst this is going on, the departments feed the same process down to the teams. 

Step 5: In turn, the teams define exactly what they’ll do and how, to support the department goals.

Step 6: This process goes back and forth to departmental level, until there’s an alignment.

Step 7: This then gets fed down to the individual level, whereby each person agrees what they’ll do and how they’ll do it to support the team goals. 

Step 8: This process is also an iterative process – back and forth until everyone’s happy with the goals and actions at each level.

Each time, these discussions and reviews happen, the business becomes more aligned.

Plan Do Check Act Cycles

In tandem with this, regular comparison of actual results to the plan is the second cornerstone of lean strategy deployment. (this consists of moving through the wheel in our model above)

Reviews take place at each level, based on the PDCA model, whereby,  if things aren’t to plan, it’s simply a case of adjusting and changing the actions (the how) until they get the results.

This whole approach ensures the organisational plans are constantly being worked on, around a continuous improvement model (the PDCA framework).

The Continuous improvement model above, then applies to day-to-day thinking, too. Once we know where we’re going, and what we’re doing, we can organise each day and set daily targets.

This allows us to set the context and direction, so we can cycle through the continuous improvement loop on a daily basis, too.

Nevertheless, without context and direction, it’s hard to identify what needs to be done and how. It’s virtually impossible to improve if you’re not creating objectives and goals.

When this is in place, however, it becomes the cornerstone to how leaders interact, empower and coach their teams to take action and try new things.

Leader Standard Work

Leader standard work is like the recipe that each leader follows, to ensure they’re doing their bit in leading the lean management system (ensuring that the wheel in our model, keeps turning).

Leader standard work is the foundation to being a lean leader. 

Using standard work across the business, you can ensure that activities around processes and systems are followed the same and consistent way. 

People should know what to do, when to do it and and how.

By doing this, you can ensure that people are maintaining high levels of output.

In leadership, we need to do the same thing. Leaders work to a system and process. This is how they lead the lean management system. 

In doing so, everyone follows their standard work, to ensure there’s consistency across the business, as to how people lead effectively and drive continuous improvement, and what to do, when to do it.

The Ingredients of Leader Standard Work

Leader standard work has a number of key components:

  • It provides a clear expectation of how to lead lean improvements
  • It focuses on developing the right behaviours across the teams
  • It ensures your leaders are conducting the right leadership behaviours to support a lean management system
  • It establishes clearly, what you want each leader to do
  • It ensures your leaders are in the workplace, coaching and developing their teams

Different Standard Work for Different Leaders

Leader Standard Work consists of a clear list of activities that must be completed daily, weekly and monthly to support the lean system.

As the leader goes through their day, they simply complete each task and check it off the list.

In tandem with this, each leader’s standard work will vary, too.

Front line leaders’ standard work will represent about 80% of their day. As you go further up the ladder, standard work represents less of a leader’s day.

A Managing Director may have standard work, which reflects about 20% of all activities, whereas a supervisor or team leader may have around 80% utilised.

Here’s an example of a Team Leader’s Standard Work

  • Conduct shift hand-over with the previous shift
  • Run the daily stand up meeting
  • Attend the department’s stand up meeting
  • Monitor production start up
  • Conduct hourly walks and checks
  • Define the labour plan
  • Close out actions
  • Instigate improvement projects
  • Handover to oncoming shift

Here’s an Example of a Supervisor’s Leader Standard Work

  • Lead the Department start up meeting
  • Regular hourly walks
  • Coach and walk with a team leader (daily) – “Go See”
  • Check Team-leaders’ standard work
  • Attend problem solving activities
  • Monitor production status and start-stop times
  • Shift handover to oncoming Supervisor
  • Shift handover from previous Supervisor
The above is a simple and visual version of standard work. Notice the reds (activities not completed) and the greens (those that have been completed)

Leader Standard Work is important because it allows all leaders to know what they have to do in their roles, in support of driving the lean management system. As a result, you’d expect to see best practice activities as typical tasks, like:

  • Coaching
  • Checking visual management is working and how it can be improved
  • Identifying how metrics are performing
  • Communicating with the teams
  • Ensuring everyone is organised
  • Empowering actions and accountability

Visual Management

The cornerstone to all lean programmes is the concept of visual management.

The simple premise is this:

What’s important should be clear to see. So clear in fact, that you should be able to see whether it’s working or not within 30 seconds….anywhere in the business.

Visual management is critical because leaders must be able to accomplish a number of things:

  • To know if targets and goals are being met 
  • To ensure that employees are following standard work 
  • To ensure their leaders underneath them are following leader standard work
  • To see any abnormalities in the processes and systems (Gaps to plan)
  • To see who’s taking improvement actions and whether they are working or not
  • To know what to improve

Remember, what’s important should be made visible, so everyone in the business can see if things are in control or whether support is needed to get things back on track.

This means that:

  • Actions and projects are up to date and displayed on the wall, at each level
  • Hourly performance of machines is tracked and displayed
  • Leader standard work for all leaders is clear to see (so you can ensure it’s being followed)
  • Key process performance is being measured and displayed

Using Leader Standard Work to Drive Visual Management

If you can make what’s important, visual, your leaders can see status quickly. They can then react fast if things are not to plan. This means, helping take corrective action and getting back on track.

This equates to targets, like a visual projects board:

To daily production targets:

And daily exceptions review, showing the areas that missed their targets, across the business:

The point is, everything that should be checked and improved every day, should be made visual.

That means, no hidden excel spread-sheets that get seen when someon’e not busy…

Or managing teams from behind a desk…

Or not standardising processes…

…and definitely not measuring key performance.

Leader standard work should be built around checking these systems and processes on a regular basis. And going to the workplace to coach and empower your teams to take action and make improvements.

In order to do this, everything should be visual.

Coaching and Developing People

A lean management system consists of coaching and developing people. In fact, it should be the element that has the most time dedicated to it.

When leaders walk the business and check to ensure the systems are working, it’s a chance to coach each individual.

In fact, the whole reason to manage and coach at the workplace is to:

  • See issues and understand the processes
  • Coach employees and develop them

A lean leader is not a person that leads by autocracy. Indeed, commanding and controlling teams have been proven to destroy morale and creativity over the long term.

What’s important is to drive ownership and allow each person and team to devise their own ideas and actions to achieve the goals set and overcome problems. Good lean leadership is about standing back and empowering daily ownership of processes and actions.

Now, assuming you have visual management in the area, and the teams are tracking their daily metrics, the role of the leader is not to tell them solutions, but merely observe and ask questions. Get them to internalise and identify ideas.

Managing by walking about (or Gemba, as the Japanese call it), is a chance to see:

  • What’s happening
  • How people are working
  • What can be improved

The Magic 4

A lean leader ensures that the team understand lean and the principles of PDCA.

They also ensure that these lean principles are implemented every day, so they eventually become a part of the daily habits. This will in turn, create a continuous improvement culture.

The 4 important coaching questions that leaders should ask, when conducting their walks are:

  1. What are we trying to achieve? – get the team / individual to discus with you the main goal that they’re trying to achieve.  What does success look like?
  2. What is happening? – get the teams to tell you, by explaining the visual metrics. Where are the gaps to plan? It’s a chance for them to internalise this mindset of checking status and making improvements.
  3. What solution are you working on? -There are so many ideas, so get them to choose an action that may get them moving forward towards their main goal.
  4. When can we go and see if it worked? Agree the time-scales for the current action they’re taking, so you can return and see if it worked. If it didn’t you’ll coach them to select another idea. If it did, you’ll get them to standardise the process to reflect this improved way of working.

Notice that none of the above coaching questions involve the leader having the answers.

A lean leader’s job is not to be the font of all knowledge and solutions. Their role is to ensure that the teams are following a daily PDCA process. They coach and ensure the employees understand the process and are using it.

In fact, just because you may have the answer, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should tell them. Ask questions. Challenge their thinking. Get them to come up with ideas and solutions. 

It’s the way that employees learn and for them to take ownership of their actions and processes. 

Coaching is the long lasting way to develop a lean management system that lasts.

Follow up/ Accountability processes

This follow up and accountability process is a culmination of everything we’ve done so far.

  1. We’ve set clear organisational goals and cascaded them down the organisation. We’ve also let the teams at each level in the business craft their own supporting ideas and action.
  2. We use standard work on processes to ensure people stick to the best way of working. We use leader standard work, to help all leaders become lean leaders. This involves helping set goals, track performance and improving processes on a daily basis.
  3. We implement visual management to ensure that everything we need to track and measure, is indeed visual, so we can see status within 30 seconds.
  4. The important element of our lean management system is to get the leaders in the business to walk their areas. We want to see status to plan, but also to coach our teams.

In this fourth element of a lean management system, we are quite literally encouraging employees to identify issues, establish ideas for improvements, and then agree actions. 

By holding people accountable, we make them responsible for their actions and completing them.

The best way to do this is the use of a whiteboard.

We ask when the action will be completed by… and we note it down on this board, so no-one forgets.

As leaders, we return to discuss the action, and to ensure that what is promised is closed off is actually completed to the time-scales promised.

Naturally, actions slip, but it’s the leader’s responsibility to ensure that greater than 80% of the time, these actions are being completed and people are following up.

How Do We Keep Momentum and Closure of Actions?

We’ve answered this question throughout the post.

We make what’s important, visual. This means putting up actions boards, Lean Strategy Action Plans, metrics, standard work, and so on.

We go to the workplace and coach, check, even audit systems, to ensure people are follwoing them and that they’re working.

We also coach the teams to make their own decisions and actions.

We regularly check actions and support people to complete them on time. We do this by conducting quick reviews (daily if we need to) to keep people focused on the actions they’ve agreed to take.

This whole process is what i call the feedback loop. Without leaders checking, reviewing and ensuring actions are completed, you’ll get little ownership and accountability.

You’ll then get little organisational improvement. 

Implementing your lean management system will ensure everyone is pulling in the right direction and the new way of working is through empowerment, continuous improvement and accountability.


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