Why start with the "why"?

Why does a company choose to deploy Lean techniques?

Let’s start with one of the most basic reasons “why”.  Companies deploy Lean techniques to become more cost competitive.  Everyone buys into this idea. 

The problem is that if Lean is only being used to become more cost competitive, it’s not going to be sustainable over the long-term.  If it’s not sustainable, then the very improvements that were sought out in the initial deployment will be lost.  This is why a team must have a more well-rounded answer as to why they want to deploy Lean.

So, how do you get the “why” reasoning right?  Simon Sinek, an American author and motivational speaker, discovered remarkable patterns about how the greatest leaders and organizations think, act, and communicate. In his popular book, “Start with Why:  How great leaders inspire everyone to take action”,  Simon explains that people buy “why” you do something before they will consider acting upon the “what” and the “how”.

How do you choose the right “why” to ensure success in your teams’ Lean deployment?  There are five principles that are reinforced by a Lean approach that contribute to creating a culture of sustainable continuous improvement.

5 Principles

1. Lean Customer focus

The first step in any Lean deployment is understanding the value in what is being done as defined by the customer.  Too often teams inside a company only think about their internal customers.  This customer focus must be external while not disregarding the needs of the internal customers.  A key question to ask: “Is the customer willing to pay for this activity?”

2. Employee engagement

Lean is a bottom-up approach.  Lean tools are designed to engage all members of the team identifying and eliminating waste and engaging in problem-solving.  Lean is not a group of tools that only engineers use but rather an approach for every employee to benefit from.  The best solutions typically come from those who work with the process, and the more they are involved, the more success you will find.

3. Respect for standards

Many Lean consultants start a Lean deployment on the shop floor with 5S (sort, set in order, shine, standardize, and sustain) because it brings immediate improvements to the work area and quickly engages the workforce in respect for standards.  Respect for standards is the simplest form of variation reduction.  Developing a strong culture that respects standards improves all aspects of performance on the shop floor:  safety, quality, reliability, delivery, and cost.

4. Waste elimination

Having every employee looking for waste each day and acting to eliminate it is enormously powerful.  A culture with this level of engagement on waste elimination drives sustainable continuous improvement. Not only does eliminating waste reduce cost, but it also makes it easier to serve the customer.

5. Visual management

Visualizing the shop floor, with Industry 4.0 and other techniques, becomes easier to understand standards and identify waste.  The adage “A picture is worth one thousand words” has never been truer when it comes to Lean deployment.


Lean deployment will be sustainable when the focus is on creating a culture that supports Lean.  At the outset, Leaders need to share the “why” behind a Lean deployment.  It needs to be clearly communicated that the “why” behind a Lean deployment is to create a culture of continuous improvement, and that the “what” will be improved cost competitiveness.

A Lean culture is created by reinforcing the five Lean principles of customer focus, employee engagement, respect for standards, waste elimination, and visual management.  The management team should ask that these principles be deployed through every Lean activity.

Why start with the “why” when it comes to Lean?  Simon Sinek got it right.  People buy “why” you do something before they engage in the what and the how.  Discussing the “what” for a Lean deployment (improved cost competitiveness) will not create a sustainable Lean deployment.  Focusing on the “why” or the Lean culture through these principles should be the real purpose of Lean deployment for a company.



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