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People-Centric Performance: Practicing Lean Human Resource Management

People at the heart of Lean Management

Senior Expert, Technical Processes, Proaction International

First introduced by Toyota, Lean Management is considered by many to be a set of waste-free management tools that help a company improve performance. You have probably heard of some of these tools: 5S, SMED, Problem Solving, and Visual Control. The usual approach for implementing these tools typically involves a plan based on training exercises, a pilot project, and then large-scale deployment accompanied by a communication plan to manage resistance to change.

One of the main principles at Toyota is that a good process, together with best practices and efficient implementation, will produce good results. This simple statement can be applied to all types of processes (administrative, management, engineering, production, etc.), and encompasses several key concepts:

  • Creating processes by integrating best practices
  • Standardization based on visual controls
  • Performing activities in full compliance with processes
  • Continuous improvement based on the problems experienced

And if you get into a conversation with colleagues or peers, you can be pretty sure that it will revolve around these elements.

There is an essential ingredient missing: people

Let's go back to the beginning. The origin of Lean is the Toyota Production System, which aims to optimize performance through the reduction of waste. An in-depth analysis of this system indicates that Toyota also emphasizes Lean human resource management:

  • Hiring members with a Lean profile
  • Intensive development of skills and knowledge, mainly through on-the-job coaching
  • Internal promotions vs. hiring of external managers
  • Management role focused on coaching vs. the traditional role of a boss issuing orders
  • Daily management system ensuring effective communication on every level
  • Suggestion system allowing members to participate directly in improvements
  • Day-to-day monitoring with the establishment of daily meetings and follow-up of results
  • Team participation in kaizen improvement activities

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And there is also a strong belief that this can only work with competent, knowledgeable, and fully motivated team members. Please note that to indicate teamwork, we talk about "members" and not employees. This is how we refer to "team members".

So, although Toyota does integrate the human element into its methodology, I often observe that this component is underestimated in most Lean initiatives. Why?

The main reason is that this element is less tangible than the more "concrete" elements such as 5S or a Kanban supply system, which can be implemented with relatively little effort.

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How can we put people back at the heart of Lean Management?

First, we need to be aware that Lean tools and methods will only work well if people are at the heart of our vision, strategies, and activities.

Then, we need to apply healthy change management with the following essential elements:

  • An implementation strategy incorporating the previously mentioned elements, and taking into account:
    • the company context
    • employee profiles
    • the organizational culture, and
    • human and technical challenges.
  • An adaptation of management behaviors to encourage taking charge of improvement activities at all levels.
  • All are supported by the comprehensive communication of the ongoing initiative.

These essential elements represent a way to ensure successful and sustainable Lean initiatives. We must never forget that behind all change are people seeking to flourish and reach their full potential, and so considering them in new methodologies is an essential way to ensure the dedication and happiness of your teams.


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Émilie Couturier