/Think and see like a child to achieve your lean potential
Klaus Petersen leader profile

Think and see like a child to achieve your lean potential

Klaus Petersen leader profilePROFILE – Children can dream big. They always have a million questions and are not afraid of making mistakes. So why are we not thinking more like them? It turns out it might be a great way to unleash our full potential as lean leaders.

Words: Roberto Priolo, Editor, Planet Lean

Profile on: Klaus Lyck Petersen, Group Process Manager, Solar A/S

A couple of years ago, Klaus Petersen was taking part in a study tour in Japan. During a presentation at Toyota City, he noticed an older gentleman sitting quietly in a corner of the room. He was told the man was a former Toyota manager with forty years of experience with the company.

During one of the breaks, Petersen shyly approached the man and asked him what, in his opinion, lean – or at least what we Westerners call “lean” – is all about. The man reflected for a moment, and then said: “Lean is about having the eyes and the mind of a child.”

That sentence has stuck with Petersen ever since.

“I have barely started to decode the meaning of it,” he admits, “But I like what I am finding out. The message behind it is beautiful, and very important: if you look at kids, they see opportunities in everything they do. They are curious. They always want to learn and understand more. More importantly, they are not afraid of making mistakes.”

Petersen’s ongoing attempt to understand what lean is all about is a powerful reminder of how elusive the methodology can be, and of how as practitioners we can never be complacent and think we have figured it all out: Petersen hasn’t, and he has been working with lean for 16 years.

He is a humble, yet strong advocate of lean thinking, and indeed he speaks about it with the enthusiasm of a child. Shortly after joining Solar, in 2007, he needed to a good goal, and decided that in 2010 the company would win the Productivity Award – an accolade awarded every year in Scandinavia to the best lean program. The goal seemed ambitious – to say the least – but sure enough in 2010 Solar achieved it.

Petersen said: “We set the goal and we did it. It’s great to be able to think ambitiously on behalf of your organization. The setting of that goal sent a strong message that we trusted our people to achieve anything. For Solar people, that was the best appreciation they could ever get. It allowed them dream big, in many ways as a child would!”


Petersen’s background is not exactly in lean, which somehow makes his “conversion” and enthusiasm for the methodology all the more inspiring. His career started in 1997 at a company called APV – owned by Invensys – where Petersen learned six sigma. He became a Black Belt first, and a Master Black Belt later on.

Shortly after, Invensys decided to turn to lean thinking (so many organizations have after working with six sigma). It was the first time Petersen heard about the methodology.

“I am embarrassed to admit that I learned lean the wrong way back then. I learned the program approach, the tools-based approach that became so popular among consultants the world over. I was more focused on the tools than I was on identifying the real problem to be solved, and it took me years to change that wrong mindset I had started with,” he told me.

The transition from six sigma to lean was particularly painful at first. Petersen found six sigma to be too focused on “staring at a computer screen to evaluate data, which you can then force onto people and use to tell them what to do.” He tried to let go of his six sigma experience at first, until he realized that the attention to data is actually something that the two methodologies have in common. Perhaps he could find a way to make them both work, together.

He said: “I remember sitting down at my desk one night and actually writing down the things about six sigma that I thought could support our company’s lean transformation. Then I adapted them to our circumstances, without sticking a label on them. It makes me cringe a bit to see so many companies wasting time deciding how to call their change initiative… It’s all wording, and it doesn’t add any value. What counts is doing something meaningful, and I have learned that taking the best from the two worlds – lean and six sigma – is possible.”

In 2007 Petersen joined Solar A/S, a Denmark-based sourcing and services company, as a corporate lean coordinator responsible for ensuring the development of capabilities, as well as management alignment.

Upon joining, he drew an initial plan and timeline, and because his approach to change is based on continuous PDCA he immediately started to assess where they were against the goals they had set themselves. How did their actual progress compare to the expectations?

Petersen is very humble, and admits he is still learning every day – which is the whole point of consistently engaging in PDCA. “Everybody is looking for a Big Bang solution in this world,” he commented, “but it is the small every-day adjustment that truly makes a difference.”

Like every leader who embraces lean, Petersen experienced a deep transformation in the way he leads and thinks. And like every lean leader, he struggled to get there, especially at the beginning.

When I asked him if there is a mistake that he made that really stuck to his mind, he didn’t hesitate for a second and started: “I was once given a project to go and optimize a work stream. I brought a team of guys with me, who shared my passion for lean and my way of thinking. As soon as we got on the floor, we parked the employees and managers on the side and moved in. We made our changes and then sent the people back into that environment, giving them a clear set of goals. I still remember the plant manager’s expression that day. He was proud of his work before we came, and we had jus destroyed everything.”

The realization that lean is about empowering people to make the changes themselves – or “the human aspect of lean thinking” – hadn’t hit him yet. After that episode, however, Petersen promised himself he would apologize to that manager at some point, which he did. The man accepted his apology, but admitted that had been one of the worst things that were ever done to him. Petersen continued: “We didn’t make them part of the change, and then left them in chaos. That was one of my biggest learning’s: change can quickly turn into chaos if you don’t work with the people involved.”

Between 2010 and 2011, Petersen became Solar’s corporate lean manager, having overseen the rollout of the methodology in eight countries, the establishment of a Lean Academy and the implementation of an ERP system across the organization, which was used as a way to better integrate IT with the rest of the system (for more on this, you can read a recent article Klaus wrote for us). In 2010 the Productivity Award came, and the following year Petersen became Group Process Manager and later Director for group process management, a title he still holds.

Professor Daniel T Jones, Petersen’s greatest source of inspiration over the years, commented: “Klaus led a lean program at Solar that gave front-line teams a deep understanding of the processes, which prepared them for the implementation of a SAP system that helped rather than hindered their work. It is rare for lean to lead SAP and Solar showed how effective this approach is in improving customer service and responsiveness. The IT function came to learn how to support front-line teams rather than tell them a better way of doing their work.”


In Petersen’s mind, the hardest thing about a lean transformation is getting started in the face of the great deal of skepticism one encounters. “It is important to remember that the skeptics deserve as much respect as everybody else. It is all too easy to dismiss them as naysayers, certainly easier than stopping for a second and trying to understand what the trigger could be for them,” he said. “I spend a lot of time trying to figure out why people should join me on the journey. What makes them happy? What makes them proud? If you can find that and build it into what you are doing, the skeptical ones will become your staunchest supporters and most vocal ambassadors.”

This view is certainly a result of Petersen’s evolution as a leader, one that led him to fully understand what his role has to be: to develop people by letting them tackle problems first hand, rather than providing them with the solutions. “I am trying to ask the right questions, rather than give answers. We must inspire people and be their partners in the transformation,” he explained.

There is no doubt that Petersen has now learned to truly live and breathe the teachings of lean management, and that this is reflected in the great results Solar is achieving. But what about the inspirational sentence told to him by the Japanese manager at Toyota? How is it influencing his every-day behaviors? What is he doing to “see and think as a child”?

To begin with, he observes the way his own children (who are 10 and 14) think and behave. Petersen said: “They ask questions all the time, and that’s where I get my inspiration from. To think like a child, you need to always keep an open mind and stay curious. I have learned not to accept the status quo, and when I am faced with a problem I now look for different angles to tackle it, with the positive view that nothing is impossible.”

Indeed, the ability of lean to unleash the potential of people can make very goal attainable. As Petersen put it, “lean is the spark that makes people’s potential ignite” – even leaders can transform very quickly once that spark reaches them. And to be in the room when that “magic” happens is something Petersen cherishes.

“That Japanese gentleman really opened my eyes, and to be able to connect his message with my work is a great privilege. Lean unleashes our inner child and curiosity to learn more every day. All lean practitioners should have that humility,” he concluded.

“Lean is about having the eyes and mind of a child.” Perhaps it is time to add J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan to the list of inspirational lean books.

Klaus Petersen photograph

Klaus Lyck Petersen is group process manager for Solar. Klaus has been implementing lean thinking for over 11 years in various companies and has led Solar’s lean journey for over 7 years carrying out a complete transformation of the management system and way of doing business. In 2010 Solar won the Productivity award for the best lean program in Scandinavia.