Changes and improvements are easy when they make
your work easier and they are non-threatening.

Lean is much more than just continuous improvement

Many managers and business leaders will have heard about Lean as a method to increase quality, speed up throughput and reduce costs. That can all be true! But did you know that many, if not most Lean initiatives fail to bring these expected rewards?


In order for Lean to really work, you need to understand the Dr. W. Edwards Deming philosophy. Deming brought his philosophy to Japan after the 2nd World War. This had a huge impact on the Japanse industry. With this philosophy, the Japanese industry was able to create very affordable high quality products with good margins that eventually flooded the Western markets.


The big secret of true Lean is the daily involvement of the front-line workers in improving the quality, reducing all kinds of non-value adding steps (waste), and solving problems and challenges immediately through teamwork. The employees not only do their regular work, they also spend time to make their work safer, healthier, ergonomically better, lighter, easier, better, faster cheaper, and more fulfilling and satisfying. Through all of that they learn more about the processes and the larger system and are finally able to address issues that may have bothered them for years.


For this to happen, you need to provide the employees with a different business culture. One where there is psychological safety, a real team spirit, clear unambiguous objectives to become the best at quality, speed and waste reduction, and autonomy to improve.


Despite of what we want to believe, most companies score poorly on these fundamental factors. That is why most Lean initiatives fail and we see resistance to change.

What a healthy functioning organisation looks like

When the now retired mister Isao Yoshino started as an apprentice at Toyota almost 50 years ago, he was made responsible for mixing paint components.


He was instructed on how to mix the components by his supervisor. After receiving his instructions (TWI Method), he was left to perform his job.


Not long after that there were complaints about the car paint not drying correctly. His supervisor went to young mister Yoshino and apologised for he apparently did not instruct Isao correctly. Isao was NOT blamed for the mistake, and put at ease!


With trust established, they focused on the process and quickly found out that there were two almost identical tins on the shelve. Isao Yoshino had accidentally used the wrong tin and thus the wrong component.


In a normal organisation, this would be the end of it. Young mister Isao Yoshino would have learned not to use the wrong tin! This would go into the daily report as “solved”.


Not so at Toyota! Together they looked at the root cause and various counter measures. They decided to rearrange the shelves to ensure that all the required components were grouped together and the two tins would never be standing next to each other again. They also marked the two tins more clearly and updated the procedures.


This way, not only Isao Yoshino would not be able to make this mistake again, but everyone after him as well. This reduces errors, stress due to fear of making a mistake and costs.


This sounds so simple, but it only works when you know how to set motivating objectives that foster a healthy fear free culture. 


* Thanks to Katie Anderson who interviewed mister Isao Yoshino.

What an unhealthy (fear based) system looks like

On June 20, 2020 Donald Trump had scheduled an election campaign rally at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The President wanted a large gathering, so entry to the campaign rally was free of charge.

People just had to register so the organizers could anticipate the number of attendees. Soon more and more people signed up and extra facilities were put in place to accommodate the large expected crowds.

Long before the actual date, rumours indicated that K-pop fans and TikTok users were registering tickets by the thousands. They never intended to go to the campaign rally, they juist wanted to disrupt the organisation.

No-one in Trumps team dared to communicate this to the President for fear of blame and retribution. On the day of the rally, Trump was extremely disappointed as the expected supporters didn’t show up. People in the Trump team were afraid to say what was really going on, which made the reality brutally harsh.


Does every generation have to reinvent the wheel again?

About 20 years ago, the company I worked for, had its culture turning toxic after a new CEO took over.

It started with a lot of top-down communication about grand plans. Those plans were quickly followed up by all kinds of targets, rules and policies that had a very strong impact on the way people felt and behaved.


Dynamic and competitive…

The CEO’s objective was to create a more dynamic and competitive organisation. The actual result was fear and passivity for almost everyone. Some took a chance to jockey for a position around the CEO. But many of those collected unemployment benefits soon after.

To keep the company on its toes, every quarter, the CEO introduced a new theme. One quarter it was the 3 Q’s, then the 5 P’s, then the 4 S’s, or the 3 W’s. Never was there any time to reap the rewards of these initiatives. Those who didn’t go along were escorted out.

The fact that I had studied organisational behaviour allowed me to see this clearly. As the late football (soccer) player Johan Cruyff used to say:

“Once you understand it, you’ll be able to see it.”


Despite not having heard of W. Edwards Deming at that time, I practiced several of his management insights. I used a facilitating leadership style within my teams. We used root cause analyses to address problems we encountered. This was possible because my people trusted me to be open about problems and errors. And that again was possible, because everyone knew that I would never blame them for errors or mistakes and that we had to learn from those mistakes.

Not an isolated case

The newly implemented (subtle and blunt) targets, rules and policies incited fear and anxiety. This made it increasingly difficult for me to maintain healthy functioning teams. After I left that company many years later, I started to recognise some of these same aspects in other organisations as well.

Grown accustomed

Each individual goal or policy seemed harmless when you looked at it superficially. But each one chipped something away from the employee’s engagement, respect, trust, motivation and willingness to cooperate and learn from mistakes. They also compelled people to become selfish and self preservative. Over the decades, we’ve all grown accustomed to many of these targets, rules, and policies, such that we don’t even question them anymore. And that is something I want to change by making you aware.

The VISIBLE effects can be:

  • Lots of fire fighting
  • Lack of motivation
  • No real improvements
  • More rules, monitoring and supervision
  • People blaming each other
  • Lots of meetings about problems
  • Large performance differences between employees
  • Lots of training, with meagre results
  • Every change or improvement must be directed from above
  • Poor margins
  • Poor customer service
  • Managers having to use pressure
  • Growing buffers and inventory
  • Fast growing departments
  • Higher levels of stress and absenteeism

The more difficult to observe effects can be:

  • Lack of engagement
  • Resistance to change
  • Problems keep reappearing
  • People not sharing tips and tricks
  • Lack of new ideas and innovation
  • Evasive answers during a problem analysis
  • Reorganisations and changes are sabotaged or complicated
  • Errors and mistakes that are hidden
  • Higher (invisible) costs due to lack of cooperation and systems thinking
  • Longer than necessary lead times
  • Increased waste and unnecessary work
  • Reported numbers are better than reality
  • No one seems to be thinking
  • Silo mentality
  • Poor handovers from one department to another
  • Inefficient processes and workflow

Just six months before, people were cooperative, helpful, and innovative. However, after the new rules were put in place, people kept low profile and were just trying to keep their job. Fear had suppressed all initiative. As Dr. W. Edwards Deming used to ask:

Why do you hire dead wood? Or why do you hire live wood and kill it?

Many organisations have dealt with similar symptoms. Countermeasures like training and workshops, might help initially, but these effects wear off after a while. Have you ever wondered why you need to repeat this process constantly?

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

Don’t get me wrong about Learning & Development (I’ve been a L&D trainer, manager, and director for over a decade). They can do wonderful work, they might even uncover these fundamental issues during their deeper analyses, but they can’t change the system for you. All they can do is to report their findings (if they can find the courage).

So the only option left to L&D is to develop programs that counteract and work around these effects. However, by not addressing the root causes, in the end training is just symptom relief, which needs to be repeated over and over again. Many lean approaches fall in that same category by ignoring the culture and pushing people to do things against their better (subconscious) judgment (e.g. fear of making yourself redundant).

Example. Years ago I was asked to organise additional training for a department that had been training their employees for almost two years, week after week.


After my analysis, I realised that the problems couldn’t be solved with more training. The root of the performance problems was not the employees, but the “system” around them.


When I presented my analysis, I was disappointed when management ignored it and demanded that my trainers would perform the requested additional training.


Only years later, did I realise that management was trapped in those same rules and policies, set by the C-level, that forced them to behave exactly as they did. My suggestions might have sounded like common sense to an outsider, but here the “system” prevented those changes.

So what’s underneath these behaviours?

  • Lack of trust
  • Fear of making yourself redundant
  • Fear of a poor performance evaluation (ranking)
  • Focus on making the numbers
  • Disappointed about previous programs
  • Discouraged to help colleagues
  • Not feeling respected and cared for
  • Deep down your colleague now is your competitor
  • Just doing what you’re told
  • Fear of making a mistake
  • Waiting for the storm to pass
  • Feeling alone
  • Cooperation is thwarted and discouraged
  • Fear of trying something new


The root cause of fear and anxiety

In this circle of cause and effect, the rules and policies create some form of fear or anxiety at a deep (and often unconscious) level. This then controls the behaviour of both the managers and the employees. This behaviour creates unwanted results, which are then corrected through tougher targets, rules and policies.

By what means?

As Deming replied to a question about wanting to change: “By what means?”. Just to give a very general example in e.g. a production environment. A company is going to be tougher on meeting its targets. These targets are increased by 5% for the coming year. They also have set a goal of zero accidents next year. To me, it is clear what this company wants to achieve. The way they formulated it is probably not going to achieve those goals. Why? Because the means on how this is going to be achieved is missing and more importantly, the corporate culture is most likely NOT enabling the employees to do the right things to work towards those objectives, but forcing them to work in a way that was decided at the top.


Single focus on results

The employees will feel the pressure and their single focus becomes hitting those targets every day and making sure that there are no (reported) accidents. They haven’t learned how to increase their productivity (no method/means), nor do they have time to think about it. All they can do is work harder to achieve those targets. Machine maintenance is postponed to achieve the production numbers. They also decide to skip some recalibration tasks during the day, as this consumes time as well. When a machine breaks down due to a lack of maintenance, the maintenance records are quickly “updated” to hide the actual cause. Now that the machine is out of commission, there is a legitimate reason why the targets can’t be achieved. A few days later, when those hastily produced parts are being assembled, it becomes clear that many of them are out of specification. In order to ensure good quality products, an additional quality control process is put in place that measures and sorts the parts.

When Johnny dropped a crate from the forklift, fortunately no-one was hurt. His colleagues quickly and silently helped to load the parts into a new crate. They then discarded the broken crate together with some damaged parts. No-one reported the accident, because of the consequences. No analysis, nor process improvements were done. What happened to Johnny can still happen to anyone else and everyone knows that.

Other settings

I have similar experiences in e.g. office settings (e.g. one full day per week wasted by searching for the right documents, forms, etc.). Almost always, there are targets that focus on the results, not on how to get there and how to learn in the process. When you’re results focused, failures are frowned upon. However, when you’re focused on how to get better, failures are automatically part of the learning process. This single focus on results creates more problems, less cooperation and often poorer results.


Other symptom reliefs

Automation is often introduced as the solution, but that just automates all the waste in the processes. This is similar in many outsourcing projects where inefficient and wasteful processes are outsourced to cheaper countries, instead of improved locally. The reasons why this gets so out of control is that the goals are wrong and not defined with a systems view. As a result, the customer service desk is overwhelmed and growing. The same types of problems are addressed over and over again by customer service, instead of just once at the core.



Poorly defined targets and HR instruments break down the team spirit and creates clusters of individuals who are all fighting to meet their personal targets in an attempt to keep their job. No more collaboration or helping each other, no more sharing of tips and tricks as your colleagues could become just as good as you. Errors and problems are hidden, only to surface much later anonymously when correcting them is difficult, expensive, and time consuming, which causes delays and rescheduling.


Vicious circle

The poor results are noticed by management. Their response is to make those results based targets even more important. Almost always, rules and policies created at the top are focused on the results and unintentionally create fear which blocks exactly those behaviours that are needed to propel the organisation forward.


On the shoulder of giants

I often see quotes from Dr. W. Edwards Deming, Taiichi Ohno, and others that show profound insights in the psychological effects of those targets, rules and policies. I know that many people are convinced about the importance of a psychologically safe environment, but I wonder how many of us realise that the true cause of stress, fear, and anxiety lies in those poorly designed targets, rules and policies? As a middle manager who strives to create a psychologically safe environment with respect and continuous improvement, there is only so much he/she can do to compensate for this strong influence from above.



To me it’s such a shame that we have to rediscover these effects that were pointed out by people like W. Edwards Deming and Taiichi Ohno long ago. When Ohno introduced his plans to turn Toyota into a respectful and caring organisation, one of the first things he did was to address the underlying fear. He told the employees that:

Everyone, who actively supports the transformation, will always have a job within the company.


Focus on HOW

Ohno also realized that giving people flat production targets was not the way to achieve the desired results in a respectful and sustainable way. Flat production targets would place the focus on the outcome, not on how to get there in a respectful and sustainable way with the best quality, least amount of effort and the lowest cost.



After Ohno had addressed these negative influences of results oriented targets, he introduced the Deming problem solving method to increase productivity and quality through strong involvement of employees in the improvement processes. Deming and Ohno understood the difference between “work as imagined vs work as done”, that every process can be improved, and that processes need to be kept up-to-date due to all the constant changes around us. This can only be done when the employees are the lean experts. The rest is history… Or not?


Off track

Toyota’s goals was to produce cars with the shortest possible lead time and the highest quality, whilst taking good care of the employees and environment. However, during the first decade of the 21st century, Toyota briefly went off track themselves. They were lured to adjust their goal: “To become the world’s biggest carmaker!”. Once they saw the lagging effects in terms of world-wide call-backs, problems and a tarnished reputation which led to the CEO publicly apologizing, they quickly went back to their original targets which had served them so well for the past 60 years.


Root cause areas

It is not just results only based objectives and HR instruments that can drive the company in the wrong direction. Over the years, I’ve found many perverse incentives and methods that created the opposite effect of what was intended in several areas:

  • The business model
    • Anglo-Saxon vs Rhineland business model, “Why does the company exist?”
  • The leadership philosophy
    • Who supports who?, decision making, culture, contribution to society
  • Financial control models
    • Wall Street, VC, Leveraging, Cost accounting, Departmental P&L & budgets
  • Outsourcing
    • loss of control, loss of IP, broken feedback loop, chaos in chaos out
  • HR instruments
    • Targets, Performance evaluations, 360°, KPI’s, Ranking method, Training, PIP, Overtime
  • Strategy & tactics development
    • top-down pressure vs collaborative, no systems thinking
  • Learning & Development
    • Working around system effects, presenting ready solutions, creating learned helplessness and passivity
  • Lean improvement departments
    • top-down solutions, no true continuous improvement, no thinking people
  • Management tools and methods
    • Dashboards?, “By what method?”, “How?”, hiring more people to solve problems and firing people to cut spiralling costs which kills trust

Does this mean that I can’t set goals?

Of course you need goals! You need to challenge your employees, sometimes even with “impossible” goals to compel them to think outside the box. It’s all about creating a psychologically safe environment where people want to work together to solve challenges, aren’t afraid to experiment (in a structured and safe way), make mistakes, and learn from them. They foster the use of creativity, craftsmanship, and experience to learn and develop better ways of working. The goal is to get more done without working harder, using less resources and polluting less. Improvements are done in a specific order: safer, better, easier, faster, and thus cheaper.


The way forward

In the section above, I’ve been critical about areas where over the decades, I have played important roles myself (CEO, L&D, Outsourcing, Consulting). Does that mean I don’t believe in L&D, Lean, or even outsourcing? No, not at all! They all play important roles once we get away from using them as symptom reliefs for deeper problems.


What about the 360° tools you mentioned?

I have even seen “harmless” instruments like the 360° tool used in such a way that it rated managers highly on system preservation tasks like fire fighting and creating learned helplessness. Of course, they used other words. I am not saying that the 360° tools are wrong, they can be wonderful, but as with any system, it all depends on how you use it.



Why were the Germans so successful in the first phase of WW2? They used the “Auftragstaktik”, which gives the soldiers and platoon leaders the mandate to make their own decisions based on the available resources, skills, and knowledge of the situation in the field. Later, due to a lack of trust, the Germans changed this to a central command structure. The system grinded to a hold despite all the rhetoric and force.


Directed teams

Management’s behaviour at all levels is extremely important, but as I said in the beginning, middle managers will fight an extremely difficult battle when targets, rules and policies from above creates fear and anxiety.


Self-directing teams

These forces can play an even stronger role in self-directing teams, as fear and competition creates the opposite behaviour of what is needed. There is a chance that one team member will take the informal leadership role whilst the other team members behave submissive.



Do I have ready-made answers? No. Every situation is different and requires observations and analyses. The answers must be developed by you, with external support. You need someone with an outsider view, who will challenge your current systems, methods, and thinking and who shows you the forces below the surface.



Unconscious anxieties that often need to be addressed first are: fear of “revenue decline” and the “perceived loss of control”. Harmony between your thinking and feeling around your own new leadership and business philosophy is important. Otherwise your unconscious will sabotage your new plans, just as the unconscious forces in your employees block them, when your actions create fear and uncertainty.


Interested to learn what prevents your company from being great?

Contact me, Robert Ilbrink, at Essentrium for a no-obligation conversation about your specific situation., People First Lean Coaching and Consulting
Languages: Nederlands, English, Deutsch

Why do you describe so many of the details on your website?

Aren’t you giving away the secret sauce? Oh yes! By reading about the background and approaches, you could start with LEAN yourself. It won’t be easy and you will probably make mistakes, but hé, that is what the whole concept is built upon.

The main reason is to prevent (fake) LEAN implementations that only focus on the tools and ignore the importance of an appropriate organisational culture. These tools focused implementations are often disappointing for both the employees and leadership. Why? Continue reading…

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” (Peter Drucker)

Why Essentrium?

During my work in Vienna, Geneva and New York, I became interested in the psychology of leadership and the subtle but important effects this has on issues like happiness, absenteeism, staff turnover, cooperation, learning & development and continuous improvement. My study Organisational Behaviour in the USA confirmed my observations and experience as a leader. Once I returned to the Netherlands, I needed a way to share this valuable lesson.

During my work in Vienna, our CEO, would visit our office in Vienna from his HQ in London twice a year. After his meeting with our country manager, he always took one or two hours to meet the employees at their desk. He was very open and would ask us what we were happy about, but also what was bothering us. Over the years, I had several one-on-one meetings with him at my desk. During one event, I mentioned how I was struggling with the fact that we were wasting lots of money locally, which didn’t become visible in London. He kept on asking questions and what I proposed as a solution. A few months later that solution was implemented and the waste in (now avoided) overtime fell dramatically in all the countries around the world, whilst the quality and customer feedback improved.

A psychologically safe environment is required to achieve true cooperation and continuous improvements. The positive side effects on happiness, absenteeism and staff turnover only makes this method more powerful.

My experience and practical research in psychologically unsafe environments has taught me why many well meaning (improvement) projects and training programs almost never achieve their stated objectives.

So is creating a psychologically safe environment enough? No, just creating a psychologically safe environment alone isn’t enough. The mounting frustrations of lacklustre performance and progress in such an environment will eventually lead to a crisis. The usual management reflex to these kind of crises is a fall back to a directive leadership style. Engagement, trust, cooperation and personal improvement initiatives are the first to suffer from this and progress comes to a hold.

Toyota, and many other companies, have shown us that long term success requires THREE equally important factors.

  1. A psychologically safe environment with strong employee engagement, trust and self-initiated continuous learning and development.
  2. A structured improvement method that utilises the experience, skills and knowledge of the employees and their managers to improve safety, flexibility, speed, quality, lead times and joy, whilst reducing dead capital, waste, cycle/process time, errors and problems.
  3. Objectives that are centred around “How”, not “What”. Flat results oriented targets almost always lead to poorer overall results.

Essentrium was founded to share my love for the combination of this culture and improvement method as it makes work so much more fulfilling for everyone. As a side effect this leads to lower absenteeism, healthcare costs, staff turnover and higher revenues as a result*.

*  Higher revenues are not the objective, but a result of optimising all the processes that affect the revenues, speed, quality and costs.

LEAN training and consulting

Drawer after 5S exercise

Essentrium combines many years of real world leadership experience (Manager, Director, CEO) with LEAN/TPS awareness, training and consulting to support (family owned) small and medium sized businesses on their path toward a different and more fulfilling way of running their business. Essentrium operates internationally.

  • The objective of LEAN/TPS is to work: Safer, Easier, Better, Faster and Cheaper with higher quality products.
  • Other objectives are to reduce: Raw materials, Inventory buffers, EnergyLead time and as a result Cost and Stress.
  • The objective is NOT* to reduce the number employees as shorter lead times with higher quality and lower costs will in most cases lead to higher demand.

* Unless people refuse to adapt to this new way of working (extreme care is required in this process).


The original philosophy behind what is called LEAN comes from Dr. W. Edwards Deming. Deming visited Japan just after WWII and helped Japan change from a country known at that time for poor quality knock-off’s to high quality brands in a short period of time. The Deming philosophy, which Toyota implemented and further improved, is known as the Toyota Production System (TPS). Toyota generously allowed American consultants to learn how they achieved their successes. This was brought to the USA under the name LEAN. The American consultants noticed all the analyses and methods used, but didn’t realise the importance of the corporate culture. Without this culture, improvements are hard to implement and even harder to maintain. The lack of a supporting culture is why various high profile LEAN projects failed.

Corporate Culture*

A psychologically safe corporate culture is extremely important when we want to achieve real continuous improvements. This culture must be actively supported from the top down and can’t be “delegated” to middle or lower management.

So why is a caring, just and psychologically safe culture so important?
As someone who had to manage multiple teams in a very competitive and toxic corporate culture, I’ve seen first hand what the effects can be. With a lack of trust in a blame based environment you can experience some or all of these following issues:

  • People start hiding errors and failures as this reflects poorly on their review.
    • The longer it takes before an error is detected, the costlier it will be to correct (IBM Research).
  • Due to fear, employees are not really cooperating when an error is investigated.
    • As a result the root cause(s) can’t be determined correctly.
    • Managers are constantly fire fighting because the root causes are never addressed and errors keep repeating.
    • Affected employees are instructed to never repeat the error again, but without fundamental improvements other employees will repeat the mistake.
    • Employees are stressed due to the the fear of making a mistake.
  • The employees are constantly pressured between high quality and fast pace.
    • High quality and high performance aren’t opposites in this system. Performance is not (or at least less) dependent on the employee, but defined by the processes. Improve the process to equalise the performance between high- and low performers.
  • Employees don’t share tips and tricks as this could improve the ranking of their colleagues, thus lowering their own relative ranking.
  • High ranking employees can sometimes prevent improvements since this will level the performance.

More than 20 years ago, by using the principles of Dr. W. Edwards Deming’s philosophy, I was able to establish trust and a psychologically safe culture inside my own departments (within a large Anglo-Saxon style company). Based on that experience, I started Essentrium to share this essential (and growing) management philosophy. Deming’s philosophy has many similarities with “Rijnlands organiseren” (the Rhineland organisation model) and is quite different from the traditional Anglo-Saxon business model.

How does a “Just” and “psychologically safe” culture work?

  • There is a clear differentiation and approach between “unwanted/toxic behaviour” and “performance issues”.
  • Performance issues (errors or slower work than expected) are investigated at the process level, NEVER blaming the employee.
  • Unwanted/Toxic behaviour is investigated as well. Support and alternatives are provided (e.g. problems at home). Behaviour must stop immediately!
  • After a root cause analysis, the employees and their manager eliminate the cause of the error together building on their mutual strengths, experience and needs.
  • The standard work procedures are there to support the employees and to make their work safer, easier, better and faster, not to blame them. This reduces stress.
* Due to poor results in traditional Anglo-Saxon cultures, Essentrium will not accept improvement projects unless there is a firm believe and willingness at the top to implement a just and psychologically safe organisational culture!

Just being nice isn't enough!

Despite all the articles about how happy employees are more productive, just being nice to your employees alone isn’t enough. You end up with employees who don’t know how to prevent mistakes other than being extremely vigilant. Problems aren’t structurally analysed and corrected and the same mistakes are made over and over again. The supervisor is running around fighting fires all day (and becoming very good at that). I once worked in a large company where fire fighting was seen as very pro-active and a highly valued skill. Leaders were even assessed on their fire fighting qualities in the 360° feedback process.

In order to be successful, you also need a system to eliminate the errors, improve the processes and share and foster the learning experience. Improvements must be made to the processes after every mistake or error. You have to do these root cause analyses TOGETHER!

Just implementing improvements in a traditional “top-Down” fashion by a “process improvement specialists” and without actively involving (and training) the employees, doesn’t work.

  • The “Top-Down” improvements most likely are not optimised for the actual work.
    • “Work as imagined” versus “Work as done”.
  • Managers most likely will complain about cumbersome procedures and put pressure on employees to speed things up, creating non-conformance.
  • As soon as the process specialist leaves the department to focus on another department or company all further improvements stop (learned helplessness).
  • Employees have not learned to “see” the mistakes and waste in the process, let alone how to analyse and improve them.
  • A general lack of trust that the improvements will not lead to a reduction in staff. Employees thus forestall or sabotage improvements out of fear.
  • Process conformity will be low leading to a continuation of the errors that were supposed to be eliminated.
  • In case of a serious problem the demanded shortcuts (non-conformity) to speed things up, are used against the employees. Leading to stress and fear.

Once the employees, together with their managers constantly improve their own processes, because they understand and believe in the objectives and culture, process conformity will be very high. They have developed the improved processes themselves in order to make their work less stressful, safer, easier, better and faster.

Helping employees to address roadblocks and scheduling conflicts

Some employees, especially those who are part of multiple projects, will have a tendency to be too optimistic in their progress reports. Again, a honest and trust based relationship will help project managers to sit down with the participants to discuss the scheduling conflicts and roadblocks. It is important to again have a broader system view to see the various interdependencies. Ask non-threatening questions to truly understand the interdependencies and conflicts and digging deeper by using the “5 Why?” technique. Just putting pressure on employees is only going to work short term and will inevitably lead to problems in other tasks that also need attention. The goal is to truly understand the roadblocks and to develop different approaches and countermeasures.

I’ve seen many examples where managers “solve” resource shortages by adding more people. This doesn’t address the underlying multitude of problems in systems, processes and flow and adds complexity due to the increased number of hand-off’s. Having too much work is the ideal starting point to improve processes and flow  albeit difficult due to time constraints. In those cases an external process improvement expert can make initial improvements to regain control as long as the employees will get involved once the crisis is over. Toyota has a name for this “hurry and wait” phenomena. It is called “Mura” and describes unevenness in an operation. The other two M’s are Muda, an activity that consumes resources without creating value for the customer, and Muri, a structural overburdening of equipment or employees.

Happiness is not the absence of problems. It's the ability to deal with them.

A complaint or an error is a gift

Analysis of packing robot intermittent error

We’ve probably all seen this quote before. “A complaint is a gift“. In many companies management and employees do not want to be confronted with problems. They have enough other problems to deal with. When you walk the floor in these companies everything seems to be working. Until you dig a bit deeper. Then you find lots of unresolved problems because they are either ignored, constantly corrected or hidden. When you observe a Toyota production line, you will notice that the employees will stop the line every now and then because something wasn’t correct. Does this mean that Toyota has more problems? No, the opposite is the case! It just wants to see every problem and deal with it immediately.

Toyota and true LEAN companies are different. They see every error or problem as a gift. The error is analysed and corrective actions are created to avoid that error in the future. Once no errors are found any longer, the system is put under stress by e.g. increasing the production capacity or reducing inventory or buffers, just to see where the system (not the employees) creates new problems again. This makes the system robust. Large inventories or process buffers are a sure indication that the processes aren’t robust and well balanced. When the production is running too fast for the employees, they will investigate ways to make the work easier, so that employees can work at a normal pace.

When employees complain about the workload, many organisations will “solve the bottleneck by adding more people”. This is a standard reflex. Not within LEAN. A complaint about a high workload is the ideal trigger to look at ways to make the work easier, better and faster without working any harder.

Systems thinking

Systems thinking is looking at the whole system instead of the individual components that make up the system. Well meaning managers might have increased the capacity of their individual department, but this does (in most cases) NOT improve the overall capacity of the organisation. Systems thinking and the Theory of Constraints will help to ensure that valuable capacity is created (not by adding machines or people, but by improving the processes) where it has the highest impact.

Thinking differently

Even though the LEAN/TPS philosophy is based on common sense, we will need to start to think differently as many worn in habits from the classical Anglo-Saxon management methods, like traditional cost accounting and a lack of systems thinking, prevents us from doing the right things.

In traditional cost accounting, you reduce the cost per item by spreading the machine investment and other fixed costs over as many parts as possible. For that reason machines must be running as fast and as long as possible and every minute “costs money”. This holds true when the machine produces stand-alone articles and market demand is higher than the maximum production capacity. When the article is a piece of a larger product however, then the production level should be synchronised with all the other production machines. Otherwise you end up with large unused stock which needs space and managing.

Large stocks are to be avoided for quality reasons as well. Many machines tend to drift, leading to products that are potentially out of tolerance. With large stocks, it might take months before the produced pieces are actually assembled. When you detect a problem during assembly, your complete stock might be affected. Toyota’s aim for one piece flow with minimal buffers is a way to ensure synchronisation between production lines and to avoid quality problems going unnoticed for days, weeks or even months. This means that machines are not always running, but only when there is actual demand. By using the same machine for different parts, you can still try to optimise the Overall equipment effectiveness (OEE). Many companies don’t do this since the conversion from one product line to another often takes hours. Within LEAN the machine conversion process is optimised and many machines can be converted within 10 minutes or less, often with only one or two people. You can compare this with changing tires at you local garage which takes 30 minutes and changing tires during a formula 1 race with takes less than 2 seconds nowadays.

Another counter-intuitive approach in LEAN is that almost all decisions are NOT made in the boardroom, but on the work floor. That is the place where all the information to convert the plans into reality are present. Taiichi Ohno (Toyota) often sent his students to the work floor just to observe for hours in order to truly understand and appreciate the complexity and interdependencies.

Another way in which LEAN/TPS is different is that the whole method is designed to find as many mistakes and problems as possible. Once the problems have been resolved, the system is put under stress until it starts to produce errors again. When employees have difficulties keeping up, they find ways to make their work easier and better suited. Employees are never blamed for performance issues, nor put under pressure. Everything is addressed by constantly improving processes and making the work easier and lighter.

Employees are not your problem, they are your solution.

Continuous learning

Continuous learning and using the expert knowledge and experience of the employees in addressing problems. The aim of LEAN/TPS is to continuously learn and develop expert knowledge and experience through small experiments based on the A3 analysis. Not all experiments will lead to success at first. That is why a caring and just culture is key to the success. Developing knowledge and skills in a continuous way becomes second nature and makes the organisation less dependent on external experts or training.


There are often certain (overlapping) phases in a LEAN/TPS journey.

  • Building trust and a just work environment, addressing unwanted behaviour so people are not afraid to do small improvement experiments.
  • Address rework, machine breakdowns and non-standards through A3, Kata, fishbone, preventive maintenance (they have the biggest impact on flow and cost)
  • Improvements by reducing waste and movements with A3, Kata, 5S, Gemba walks, standard work, spaghetti diagram, Value Stream Mapping, Visual Management, SMED, etc.
  • Optimisation by balancing processes, process/cycle and takt-time, variation, 3:1 & 1:3 rule, inventory & buffers, pull system, one-piece-flow, and predictive maintenance.

A LEAN/TPS journey will NEVER end! You will reach certain milestones, but continuous improvements and optimisations will continue forever. Requirements, systems, machines, raw materials, regulations and new challenges change on an almost daily basis. So should your organisation and their processes. That is why it’s important that employees and all managers are well versed in root cause analysis and can develop the “The current best practice” to address the problems on a daily basis. This makes you organisation flexible and independent of most external consulting and training.

Sometimes, and certainly with automotive (ISO/TS 16949) and medical (ISO 13485) certifications, the LEAN/TPS flexibility seems counter to the certification requirements. Indeed automotive and medical certifications need a re-certification for any change in the process. This makes continuous improvements very expensive. However, the documentation on A3’s and standard work can be perfectly in line with the ISO 9001 guidelines.

Is continuous improvement right for every situation?

Unfortunately, continuous improvement is not the panaceum for all problems. When you challenge employees to improve the lead-time by e.g. 5%, they will probably look at solutions like “working just a little harder”. When you repeat this year after year, without actually improving the underlying processes, people will end up with a Burn-Out.

However, when you ask them to improve the lead-time by e.g. 50%, they will realise that they must be thinking outside the box. A 50% improvement can’t (easily) be achieved by just incrementally improving the old way of working. You will need to innovate, which is different from improving.

This is called a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal, introduced by Jim Collins) and forces people to think outside the beaten path. Even when they only achieve 35% after a year, this result should be celebrated, and never looked down upon. The objective was not to achieve the 50%, the objective was to approach the problem with radical new ideas.

Example: When Toyota developed the Prius, they had roughly three options.

  • Take a standard car and just add an electric motor and batteries but leave the IC-engine and drive train.
  • Replace the whole drive train with an electric motor and use the IC-engine only to charge the batteries.
  • Remove the IC-engine and drive chain and make it pure electric.

What Toyota selected was option number 1. This was closest to what they knew (incremental improvement). Option 2 was already a major redesign and option 3 (Tesla) was way too radical.

Each implementation is unique

The system that Toyota perfected over more than 70 years includes many tools to analyse errors and waste in a company or organisation. Which tools to use and how to use them depends on your organisation. Each LEAN/TPS organisation has to develop their own unique implementation which is tailored to your specific needs and requirements. LEAN/TPS has been developed within the production industries, but the philosophy and many tools can be used successfully in other fields like healthcare, service industry, hospitality, transportation, etc.

Many managers have no idea how much time is wasted in waiting, poorly matching processes, looking for the right documents/information (I measured almost 20% search time in one very large Telecom company. That is one day a week!), etc. One way to find out how much time is actually wasted is to place a priority order and say that this is for the general manager’s wife or brother and (s)he needs it asap (not truly honest as they might be pilfering from existing orders).

Interested in learning more?

Want to learn more on how you can reduce stress and improve the spirit, health and well-being of your employees whilst reducing cost and lead time?  Don’t hesitate to call or write. You will find the contact information here, or on the contact page.