Strength-Based Lean Thinking

A strength-based approach to Lean Thinking creates a committed and focused team working on an improvement initiative with a keen search for possibilities rather than problems.

Never before has there been such a strong call for a culture of continuous improvement in the private and public sectors across the global economy. In these challenging times, the appetite to discover how to do this better has never been greater. Process improvement has been developed over the last 100 years, and, as a result, we know more about the challenges of implementing and sustaining a culture of continuous improvement across organizations than ever before.

These challenges are particularly apparent when trying to expand continuous improvement initiatives or projects to a complete culture across organizations so that continuous improvement becomes the “way work is done.” While Lean projects or short-term interventions can be successful in the short run, sustaining the improvements gained and instilling the values, ethos, and culture of Lean Thinking is elusive and easy to miss.

The traditional view is that the best method for improving the way processes in our organizations work is to understand in great detail what does not work well at present. The next step is to find a solution to the problem or its root cause, and finally to implement it.

We also were taught to develop a vision about a desired future state (typically based on “best practices”) for our processes, followed by a focus on bridging the gaps between the “as is” and the desired “to be” states. Both approaches create a continuous focus on the gaps, inadequacies, and weaknesses of our processes, systems, and people.

Admittedly, these approaches to organizational change and improvement have served us fairly well over many decades by driving significantly greater efficiency and quality in manufacturing and other processes. However, there are well-documented examples of failures in driving improvement culture. For example, even the Toyota motor company, the source of the Toyota Production System (TPS), which laid the foundations for many of the principles and tools in the Lean tool box, has experienced several highly publicized challenges in recent years that exposed weaknesses and inconsistencies in the way its TPS philosophy was implemented. These included a well-publicized slow response to the discovery of defective car parts installed in millions of cars around the world, as well as other glitches in its supply chain and customer service. These experiences exposed difficulties in truly responding to customer demand on time, in contradiction to the well-known principle of “Just in Time.” This example is given not in order to pick at Toyota specifically (it is still an inspiring example of success) but rather to demonstrate how challenging it can be to instill a true and sustainable culture of continuous improvement.

Strength-Based Lean: A Different Way

Most applications of Lean Thinking begin with an assumption that there is a theoretical “perfect state” for each organizational process, and that the current state deviates from the perfect state due to inefficiencies and waste.

This starting point means that, in order to improve our processes, we have to focus on the identification of gaps between the current state and the desired/perfect state (this is called “deficit focus”). Finding root causes for these gaps and fixing them follows next. At best, this approach takes you back to a state of status quo (“good”) where expectations are met but rarely exceeded. It is unlikely to help you exceed customers’ expectations (“great”).

The strength-based approach to Lean has a different focus. Instead of focusing on what is broken and inefficient, it teaches how to identify what already is working efficiently and generates value in existing processes and systems (this is called “strength focus”). Next, we define ways to expand those parts and implement good practices elsewhere. This focus on the search for and growth of existing efficiency enables new ideas to emerge and supports implementation of process improvements by raising confidence, pride, and energy levels. The strength-based approach to Lean is more natural to work with and more sustainable in the long term. The focus of traditional Lean tends to weaken the system—even when it is successful—because it instills doubt and despair by giving unbalanced attention to waste and by amplifying inefficiencies.

In every organization, there is a wealth of knowledge and practical experience about efficient and value-adding ways to work. The strength-based approach relies on existing good practices and internal knowledge rather than introducing “solutions from elsewhere,” thus making improvement easier. Visualize your teams as they discover the (often ignored) resources in their processes. As they do so, they find creative and energizing ways to improve, truly moving from good to great.

Strength-based Lean combines the rigor of Lean with the innovation and energy of Appreciative Inquiry and other strength-based approaches to organizational change, creating a more successful, inclusive, and sustainable result.

Why Change Now?

We live in a world that is moving at great speed. The rate of change and innovation is faster than ever. There is simply no time to collect data, analyze it, identify root causes, and fix them. By the time we have completed this cycle, reality already will have shifted and we are likely to find new problems. In addition, this fast pace means that we struggle to sustain the improvements we were able to achieve or continuously drive the importance of waste and defect elimination. Motivation and energy—so essential for change—are likely to wane.

The alternative approach of bridging gaps does not offer a solution either. Focusing attention on external best practices, and on current gaps against those best practices, distracts staff attention and does not encourage engagement across the organization or sustainability of existing good practices.

Benefits of the Strength-Based Approach

A strength-based approach to Lean Thinking creates a committed and focused team working on an improvement initiative with a keen search for possibilities rather than problems. Observing any process with this different “lens” invites us to start looking for the strengths and opportunities of the process, and to use this information to achieve the desired improvements confidently. Focusing on what works raises energy and motivation. Creativity is higher than that generated by following traditional improvement methods, and innovation is easier to achieve. The ideas for improvements generated through this approach are strong, as well as based on reality and knowledge from within the organization.

Because the process of improvement is no longer accompanied by the negative feelings associated with waste and defects (even if this association is only implicit, it is always present with classic Lean Thinking), there is a higher degree of participant engagement and sustained energy toward improvement.

Leveraging current or past knowledge, and accessing experiences and successes from within the system, are great resources for the next generation of improvement initiatives. They also provide motivation to everyone toward facing the challenges and opportunities ahead.

Teaching improvement teams and all members of the organization how to find what is value-generating for customers drives them to consciously or unconsciously seek ways to deliver even more value to customers. Isn’t that what we’re all about?

David Shaked, MBA, has 18 years of practical experience and a strong track record with organizations such as Johnson & Johnson, Intel, 3M, and IBM. He established Almond Insight ( in 2008. Shaked is a certified Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt and an Appreciative Inquiry certified trainer and practitioner by NTL. His expertise lies in applying strength-based approaches to business improvement tools in a practical and approachable way to solve business challenges in sales, marketing, finance, customer services, logistics/distribution and human resources. He has developed a unique approach to business process improvement combining Strength-based approaches to change with proven analytical and delivery tools such as Lean Thinking and Six Sigma. As part of this, he wrote the book, “Strength-Based Lean Six Sigma: Building Positive and Engaging Business Improvement.”

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