Lean Management Practices to Try Right Now

The role of management in Lean organizations is different from that in traditional work environments. Lean leaders lead through influence, not command and control. Lean management is humble, curious, and encouraging.

Lean Governance

Lean governance provides accountability without impacting innovation and delivery speed.

Although it can take years of practice to truly embody Lean management every day (and especially while under stress), anyone can incorporate Lean management practices into their daily work. Whether you’re an executive, a middle manager, or an individual contributor, try these Lean management practices to improve your leadership ability and make a bigger impact in your organization.

Define Value from the Customer’s Perspective

One of the most fundamental concepts to Lean is the idea that value is defined from the customer’s perspective. Any activity, process, product, feature, or function that doesn’t add value to the customer is considered waste. Without this principle to guide prioritization decisions, Lean teams cannot truly optimize their workflows for value creation.

Lean managers can help reinforce this concept by encouraging teams to remember this definition of value when making both larger and smaller prioritization decisions. For example, if a team has to decide between fixing a bug that has been causing certain “power users” frustration or adding a shiny new feature that is a “nice to have,” a Lean leader should encourage his or her team to prioritize the fix before the new feature (even if this doesn’t get as much attention or praise from the executive team).

Lean leaders can also foster a customer-first perspective by celebrating customer wins:

  • Promoting positive feedback from customers
  • Rewarding intentional effort to solve customer problems
  • Finding other ways to demonstrate appreciation for those who put customers first

Listen to the Voice of the Customer

A key part of this idea is that in order to understand the customer’s perspective, you have to ask for it. Another Lean management practice that leaders can practice is incorporating more ways to solicit user / customer feedback throughout the product development process, whether that’s through:

  • Focus groups
  • In-app messaging
  • Social media polls
  • Surveys
  • Other methods

Go to the Gemba

If the goal of Lean is to maximize creation of value, where value is defined through the eyes of the customer, then it’s critical for Lean companies to have a deep understanding of their customers.

How do you learn about your customer?

  • Listen – both to the customers themselves, as well as to the employees who work with them most closely
  • Collect data about what customers can team members resonate with, and what they don't
  • Make decisions that account for both short-term and long-term satisfaction

In Lean, the idea of going to where the work is being done is called going to the gemba. It’s easy for leaders to rely too heavily on vanity metrics on dashboards instead of real perspectives from customers and the people closest to them.

Going to the gemba looks different depending on the setup of your team and organization; it might include:

  • Participating more actively in the Slack channels of the teams you manage
  • Sitting in during regular meetings
  • Burning the midnight oil with the team while you work together to fix a defect

If you’re doing it right, your team shouldn’t behave differently when you walk into the room. They should trust that your intention is to gain a better understanding of the work they’re doing, not to quiz or police them. Hopefully, they’re used to you being around them during the “messier” parts of their processes – if not, go to the gemba more frequently.

Eliminate Work that Doesn’t Add Value

If someone looks busy, because of a full calendar, or a tendency to skip lunch or work late, we often think of them as being more productive, important, or efficient than others. In reality, busyness does not equal productivity, and it’s often a sign of inefficiency more than efficiency (unless that person is systemically overworked / overutilized).

Busy people aren't:

  • Able to think as clearly as people with more flexibility in their schedules
  • Able to pivot as seamlessly when they learn new information
  • As Lean as non-busy people

Why? Because their work days are still full of waste.

Practicing Lean thinking forces us to un-learn the idea that busyness equals success. It also exposes the fallacy in the idea that successful managers are and should be too busy for their teams.

Proactive, intentional time management is one of the most important practices for Lean leaders to master, because failure to do so means endless waste created by the leader; everyone is impacted by their lack of agility.

It’s true that individual contributors typically have far more control over their days than those who manage people. Individual contributors create value by sitting down and doing the work, while leaders create value by influencing those doing the work.

If you look at the calendar of someone who manages one or more teams, you’re unlikely to find white space. But white space is where creative problem solving, active listening, and going to the gemba happen.

As Lean leaders, we have to recognize, and help our teams recognize, opportunities to streamline efforts so everyone can focus on the most important, value-adding activities. We have to lead by example by cancelling agenda-less meetings, blocking off time for focused work, and challenging our teams to focus on producing value over simply producing work.

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