/Business growth, human growth

Business growth, human growth

FEATURE – In his latest article, the author explains why pursuing human growth as part of our lean efforts is meaningless until we fully master our pull systems.

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

The ideal of lean is quite explicit: we seek to reconcile business growth and human growth. In Toyota Production System terms, this is about taking our destiny in our own hands by improving corporate vitality through personal fulfillment.

The theory is that a lean system combines work and materials to satisfy real customer demand by engaging employees and encouraging them to look for better ways to do their job. In a turbulent market, the company thrives because its short lead-times enable fast reactions to market shifts as well as quickly turn demand into revenue. The system also encourages versatility in the workplace to enhance the business’ flexibility in the face of growing demand for product diversity. Employees also thrive because the system’s demand for employee initiative creates endless opportunities to exercise one’s creativity and develop one’s autonomy. Within the constraints of highly technical and well-defined processes, people enjoy work because of the space to think and to try out their own ideas, honing their skills and making a contribution.

The underlying assumption is that both business and people growth rest on the very human drive for personal mastery and personal improvement. Self-efficacy (the belief in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to manage prospective situations – according to social psychologist Albert Bandura) is a core human motivation. Although people’s individual drive to produce a certain result varies, from those who thrive on challenges and problems to those who’d rather avoid them and/or quickly lose confidence in their ability to face and solve the issues confronting them, self-efficacy is one of the strongest influencers of collective outcomes. The main sources of self-efficacy are learning from experience, role modeling, social persuasion as well as each person’s psychological response to challenging situations.

Beyond the aspiration for personal mastery, which we share with other mammals that will repeat a task until they handle it to their satisfaction, humans are fundamentally tool users. Indeed, one of the main theories of language development argues that symbolic language arose around tool use: human grammars are all structured around subjects doing something (verbs) to objects. The aspiration to personal mastery cannot be separated from the tool used to achieve it.

In lean, the essential tool is pull. Lean problems are defined by the tension between the requirement to respond just-in-time (as close to takt as we can be) and the imperative never to pass on a bad part. Lean practice is about devising the visual tools that make this tension intuitive in order to reduce the mental ergonomic burden of defining problems and therefore to free the mind so that it can solve problems creatively. A clearer display, repetitive situations and a good mood make problem solving easier: it feels familiar, it feels true, it feels good and it feels effortless.

What it comes down to is that the lean ideal of reconciling business growth and human growth requires a deep mastery of pull systems in order to make kaizen easy by developing every employee’s familiarity and confidence with the problems that need solving.

Without a detailed understanding of how work must be pulled in every specific situation, from sales to engineering, from production to supply chain, the intent of lean remains wishful thinking. There can be no lean without a hands-on, concrete know-how of pull in all situations.

Hospitals learn to pull the patient flow by focusing on patient exit rather than patient entry. Engineering department learn to pull design process by limiting how many files are open at any one time on an engineer’s desk, and so on. Aspiring to the ideal of lean starts by every one of us deepening our understanding of pull in every specific context. Mastery of pull is one of the essential techniques that distinguish lean from every other managerial approach, and that turns intent into action, a talk into a walk.


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.