One of the main themes of the International Subcontracting Trade Fair 2016 is leadership, which is difficult to discuss without referring to Lean one way or another. This mode of operation created by Toyota and later known as “Lean Thinking” is used today in various fields, the majority of which has nothing to do with the automotive industry.

The methods of Lean thinking are used today for optimising various services, product development projects, and patient treatment processes. Many workplaces are nowadays familiar with, for example, the 5S related to cleanliness, companies have made descriptions of value streams, eliminated waste, such as storages, and have participated in Kaizen events. Results have also been obtained: cleanliness and occupational safety have improved together with work satisfaction, waiting times have been shortened and continuous improvement is now more efficient. However, at the same time, many have wondered what has happened for example to the promises of improved profitability, when in reality we may have made our operations more vulnerable.

Did something go wrong? Or could it be true what doubting Thomases say: the operational model of a car manufacturing industry cannot be applied to other sectors? It is often a case of too narrow thinking: Lean thinking is only seen as one production development project among many other projects or as a technique consisting of various tools that enable the improvement of efficiency. Although it is true that several different kinds of tools are used in optimising work, the great thing about Lean is that it is not a technique.

Lean is a way of thinking. And this means that it can be applied to almost anything.

Another common assumption is that Lean only concentrates on developments achieved according to the terms of flow efficiency. It is true that the flow of functions and value streams is essential when trying to achieve short lead-times or waiting time processes, but, once again, Lean is more than just a flow. As we try to optimise our modes of operation, we must know the current state of the processes, describe the value streams and highlight the everyday disturbances in a way that enables a quick reaction to them. In other words, we must use the techniques and tools that Lean is known for.

Thus, a significant cultural change of modes of operations that enable improvements concerning economic efficiency and quality cannot usually be achieved, unless we systematically concentrate on developing the abilities and willingness of all employees to solve problems inside the organisation. In this case, Lean is only a tool used by the development personnel and it will never be a resource that would change the culture of the whole organisation. This is why most of the Lean projects run by external actors do not yield sustainable results and this is why a Lean project is re-launched in many organisations every couple of years – always starting almost from the beginning. This is a great waste, since a great deal of valuable resources of the organisation are lost.

The personnel and leadership are at the centre of Lean thinking. The most important goal of Lean leadership is the systematic development of the will and ability to solve problems and the supporting of this in everyday work. This is not easy or quick and it means a complete renewal of the practices of leadership.

Columnist: Kalle Arsalo is the Executive Manager of the Lean Association of Finland. The Lean Association of Finland aims, by using the Lean philosophy, to provide Finnish companies and general government authorities with prerequisites for improving their competitiveness. Additional information:

The original article has been published in the Tiedosta magazine, issue 2/2015.