Role of Human Resources in Delivering Lean Success

As economic conditions cause organizations to find ways to be more efficient, a growing number are turning to an approach that is commonly called Lean. This strategy began in the industrial sector, and has since spread to many other areas, including government services, healthcare, education, hospitality, technology and financial sectors.

Unfortunately, many of these initiatives fail to achieve sustained benefits. Human Resource professionals can contribute positively to such initiatives, and help their organizations increase their chances of delivering Lean success.


Lean focuses on an enterprise-wide transformation. Essentially, Lean requires that people change not only the way they work, but the way they think about their work. This new perspective results in wide-ranging workplace improvements including efficiency, quality, flexibility, service and employee satisfaction.

Common Practices

Lean is often mistakenly applied as a collection of standalone tools and techniques, leading to short-term and ultimately unsustainable results. To achieve the kind of Lean results that can turn an organization around, Lean effort needs to be aligned to strategic priorities and goals and sponsored at the highest levels of the organization. Lean requires a long-term, enterprise-level vision.

After working on dozens of Lean transformations, our team is often surprised with the reluctance of so many managers to participate in such efforts, even when a Lean direction has been well established. We also find it surprising, given the cultural issues involved, that Human Resource professionals are rarely engaged to support the human factors associated with change.

Here are the key touch points:

Value Streams and Cross-Functional Teams

The end to end processes required for delivery of products or services is referred to as a Value Stream. Value Stream typical cut cross many departments. Value Stream Mapping is a Lean tool to capture the end to end processes and cross functional teams are used to complete the mapping exercise. Such teams must include people from all levels of the organization, and they must all work together side by side. It is important for organizations to properly manage the team dynamics.

Engaging Staff to Lead Change

In contrast to the traditional top-down management approach, Lean engages all process stakeholders to participate in supporting improvement initiatives. Cross functional teams are again assembled for formal Kaizen (Rapid Improvement) events to develop and implement solutions. This can be a stumbling block for many organizations. Engagement of staff is a critical to successful improvement Lean initiatives. Many of us will be resistant to releasing staff from their regular duties. Organizations must be prepared for this new dynamic and provide the necessary coaching and leadership training to their management teams.

Building a Lean Culture

The most difficult element in any Lean transformation is also the most powerful – the engagement of staff at all levels. The real need for Lean initiatives usually happen when organizations are under pressure, Most organizations, their staff and managers, already feel overwhelmed with their workload and will see Lean and change initiative as necessary but simply something they don’t have time for. During the early stages of implementation, resistance goes with the territory.

Patience, persistence, good communication, and strong leadership are all essential in getting through Lean’s initial growing pains. Resistance must be addressed at all levels. Staff, supervisors and managers have to learn that the “old way” is not necessarily the best way. Managers need to learn to let go and let their teams lead change. Senior managers must learn to be mentors, and to set an example for the rest of the organization by doing as well as saying. And finally, staff must learn to discard their organizational differences and cooperate in the best interests of the customer.

The Human Resources team must be prepared to support and reinforce an organization in its Lean journey. New behaviours and practices must be celebrated and recognized over the long terms for a true cultural change to take hold and grow.