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Features By: Michael Ballé

Michael Ballé identifies a set of lean management values to live by

FEATURE ARTICLE – If we see lean thinking as a paradigm, which we do, then we should be able to define a set of values this paradigm is built on. So, are there lean ethics? Michael Ballé identifies 10 undisputed lean values, plus one.

Words: Michael Ballé, executive coach, author and co-founder of Institut Lean France

“Lean is not value-free,” John Shook once told me as we were discussing how inclusive or exclusive the lean movement should be – a question that has not found a definitive answer yet. I have been wondering this ever since: what are the values of lean?

Like many cultural discussions, issues relating to values are hard to get to grips with (even the term “value” is loaded and hard to figure out in practice) because so much is in the eye of the beholder: we naturally project our values on whatever we subscribe to, which doesn’t necessarily mean that the object actually supports them.

So, here are 10 unambiguous lean values (by unambiguous I mean explicitly stated in both TPS and lean literature and not subject to debate), or “preferences,” to live by:

  1. Customer satisfaction over company internal interestsThe first preference is for putting customers ahead of the company, which – needless to say – is a hard gauge to measure oneself. Customers are many and endless in their demands. Any company must make choices to deliver to many customers at one time. How can it place one single customer’s demands over its own processes? The lean answer is, of course, flexibility – but this has its own technical limits. (As Jim Womack points out here, any time a company, be it Toyota or Volkswagen, puts itself ahead of its customers trouble ensues).
  2. Facts are preferred to data – Facts means firsthand information, which in technical parlance might be called “transsubjective” – we all understand that every perspective is subjective, but when we have witnessed the same event together we can agree on what occurred. Facts on the gemba are clearly preferred to analysis of reports presented in the boardroom. This doesn’t mean there is no place for collating data and analysis, but that the first question always is: have you gone and looked for yourself at what was really happening in context? In the famous Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle, emphasis is on Checking the facts and Act – drawing the right conclusions.
  3. Problems are learning opportunities, not occasions for blame – Blaming the messenger is a natural human tendency; we are hard-wired to attribute successes to our actions and failures to someone else’s personality defects. There is no escaping this bias. However, we can force ourselves to value problems as opportunities for learning and handle unfavorable information positively, asking “why?” rather than “who?” so that people will feel comfortable addressing failures as well as successes.
  4. Shorter lead-times are better than longer onesJust-in-time is about reducing the lead-time between a request and its fulfillment. This is consistent with the first value of customer satisfaction, but is obviously very hard to achieve because we normally tend to get on with work according to present capabilities and to deliver to customers whenever we are ready.
  5. Teamwork over individual heroes – Just-in-time necessarily calls for a preference for cooperation across functions over each silo solving its own problems and the company procedures somehow having to carry the load of cross-functional collaboration. Teamwork in the lean sense means problem solving across boundaries as opposed to throwing the problem on the other side of the fence.
  6. Fixing problems as they occur over working first and fixing later – The Jidokapreference for stop at every defect to look for the actual conditions creating the defect often means investing in developing the means to do so. The easier choice is to continue working, acknowledging something is not quite right, and assuming that either the customer won’t notice or that the defect will be noticed at final inspection. Stopping at defect is a strong value, and hard to carry out in practice, particularly when it first means investing in developing the technical means to distinguish bad work from good work.
  7. Continuous improvement over procedural stability – Continuous improvement is valued not as random change, but as the preference for changing one thing at a time at all times, as opposed to a “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach. In practice, this means making an effort to have one ongoing “try it now” improvement activity in every process at all times, and involving teams in improving their own processes rather than expecting central offices to define everything and ask value-adding employees to blindly execute.
  8. Detailed understanding of work over general overview – A very detailed knowledge of work, captured in the form of standard, is preferred to a financial or process overview of what a department does. Standards specify performance in terms of work pace, quality, inventory, safety, step-by-step sequence, specific capabilities and the deeper knowledge needed to do the job right. Lean managers are expected to be interested in that level of detail rather than be content with understanding the process at a higher level or simply looking at the budget results.
  9. Instruction and improvement over command and control – Hierarchy is critical to lean (as opposed to hierarchy-less thinking found in liberated enterprises, holacracy or business process re-engineering) but its preferred role is to train direct reports and support kaizen as opposed to make decisions, staff them and press the “execute” button. Competence is valued over compliance, and teamwork over individual fire-fighting.
  10. Ideas from value-adding employees are preferred to central investment – Lean tools are all about bringing decision-making closer to the product/service and the people who make it as opposed to taking decisions back towards management meeting rooms. The tools themselves highlight targets, gaps and waste so that value-adding employees can think of better ways of working, suggest and implement them, thus sustaining kaizen. Correspondingly, there is a preference for 100 1% small steps over 1 100% large step.

As preferences systems go, lean is unusually explicit and consistent. Taking a step back, an overview of the 10 values stated above shows the following:

  • Strong principles: Although it might seem impractical or impossible to make the step, the “lean” way forward is always clear in terms of both aims – more customer satisfaction, shorter lead-times, faster reaction to every defect, more involvement of teams in developing their standards and conducting kaizen – and process – closer to the gemba, better problem solving, better teamwork, more training and greater individual engagement and creativity.
  • A focus on people development: All the values highlighted are consistent with the intent of developing people in order to “help us work better individually and collaboratively as we come to see the world more clearly, understand it more deeply, and deal with it more effectively,” as John Shook says in the The Gold Mine Trilogy Study Guide, out now.
  • A challenging journey: Very few work situations are set up to make any step in the direction of these values easy. Therefore, the system as a whole is very demanding and requires constancy of purpose, persistence and a fair amount of personal grit to overcome the practical and political obstacles to progressing towards lean.

There lies the rub: the lean value system is clearly geared towards better satisfying customers by developing all employees, but it is very demanding and assumes that employees want (or even agree) to be developed. Although one can force someone to do something, one can hardly force any one to learn. By nature, the lean value system requires cooperation – learning is a collaborative outcome. This issue is well understood within the lean tradition as the values of developmental challenge are balanced with those of “respect” – in lean terms, making the greatest efforts to understand the other’s point of view and recognize they might have different aims, face real (or imaginary) difficulties and that their own, valid, experience guides their positions.

In practical terms, it is clear that every person thinks they’re doing a good job and that telling them otherwise, even in the interest of their own development, is likely to ruin their day. This problem is widely recognized, as pointed out by Akio Toyoda, Toyota’s current CEO: “A real irony is that respect for people requires that people feel the pain of critical feedback.” The attitude is that if people don’t get realistic feedback, they don’t learn and they’re not being respected. Still, “the job of a leader is not to put them in positions to fail, but to put them in positions where they must work hard to succeed and still see how they could have been even better” (as Mr Toyoda said in Jeff Liker and Gary Convis’ The Toyota Way To Lean Leadership).


The 11th principle in the lean value system at work here, its “golden rule” in a sense, is the idea of making a person’s job easier. This, of course, is far from easy and creates more challenging trade-offs with the developmental aims of the rest of the lean principles, but provides yet another clear guideline on what next step to take.

Ethics systems are not procedures. They are signposts showing you the right direction, but they don’t tell you how to take the next step or even what step to take. The ethical compass limits itself to showing whether you are moving in the right direction or you are backsliding. Like any ethics system, the lean values framework carries its own unique issues of courage and consistencies, such as (among many others):

  • How adamant are you likely to be about moving according to lean principles when this is visibly politically inconvenient or even dangerous?
  • How do you deal with co-workers with different values, who have no interest in self-development, but are focused on doing their own job on their own, refuse to consider improvement potential, blame everyone else for failures, and won’t participate in teamwork efforts?
  • How do you face resistant people without reverting to traditional pressure modes of Facts (this is the situation as I see it), Fear (if you don’t get with the program watch out for consequences) and Force (enough is enough, you’ll just do as you are told), as brilliantly described by Alan Deutschman in Change or Die?

Lean values hold no answer other than what the way forward is and, if you’re honest with yourself, make you feel guilty when you fall short. Human beings naturally respond to falling short by protecting their ego with justification (I had no other choice) and rationalization (in the end, although this looks bad, it’s going to be for the better because…). Listening carefully to lean discussions one hears his fair share of justifications and rationalizations, often couched in lean terms.

Sooner or later, lean values are confronted with a higher order of moral principles and the core question whenever one commits to changing the world for the better (one hopes) is: how do I deal with dissent? To take Philip Zimbardo’s terms to measure good versus evil, at any point in time are we being kind or cruel? Caring or indifferent? Creative or destructives? In other words, are we behaving as heroes or villains? (See The Lucifer Effect).

Clearly there is no “lean” answer to such fundamental question, but there are some leads. Lean is modern in the sense that its principles are not supposed to be applied irrespectively to each individual position. Contrarily to the ethics systems of the 20th century, it is not okay to sacrifice individuals for the greater good – the argument that “you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs” does not stand.


Toyota’s French plant production managers thoroughly understand the need for standardized work. Operators should follow a specific sequence of actions and each action needs to be completed in the best way known at the time. Kaizen on difficult actions will show where the productivity frontier lies. In practice, shared standard work is the best way to protect employees from being randomly berated by their boss for doing a bad job when they think they’re doing okay. Following standardized work gives management and workers a common reference point. But what about really tall people? Or short? Or left-handed?

Front-line managers were taught what they called “mendo-mi”: taking into account the individual specificities of every team member. The question they were asked by their Japanese coaches was: how can you make it easier for each team member to follow the standardized work? The principle of “standard work” was not abandoned, but corrected by taking responsibility to help each person follow the standards as naturally as possible. Line group leaders were taught to change their approach from identifying defects, analyzing the cause, and coming up with a countermeasure taught to all team members, to analyzing individual difficulties and developing a personalized development plan based on basic skills, specialized skills and process help, such as creating individualized jigs to help people follow the standard work.

No ethical question will ever have a general answer in any specific case – the only way we can hold to general ideas is to generalize the situation, and therefore dehumanize it. To paraphrase Rilke, with ethics, we must try to love the questions themselves. And yet, just as lean is not value-free and indeed (as I’ve tried to show) carries a very specific set of value preferences, it is also very much of the 21st century, accepting head-on that strong principles should not be applied to the detriment of individual situations and circumstances.

Yes, the principles tell us which way we should go, without much ambiguity. Still, steps in these directions are hard and people often balk not so much because of moral weakness but because of very practical difficulties. We can help them by focusing on their individual cases and through better cross-communication find ways to make it easier for them follow the principles.

Lean is indeed not value-less. Lean is actually a full paradigm: a practice, a theory, and a set of values. The ongoing question John Shook and I debated will remain open (and rightly so) because what “lean” is and what it is not depends on the specific interplay of the rigor of the tools, the depth of the analysis and the attitude of the person carrying both. This is why learning lean can be such a long journey: the daily practice of the tools on the gemba leads one to reexamine both one’s knowledge and one’s values, and acquire the discipline of learning something truly new.


Michael Ballé is co-founder of the Institut Lean France. An associate researcher at Telecom ParisTech, he holds a doctorate from the Sorbonne in Social Sciences and Knowledge Sciences. Michael is a best-selling author and an engaging speaker, and managing partner of ESG Consultants. He also works as a lean executive coach in various fields, from manufacturing to engineering, services to healthcare.

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