lean teams

Your Guide to Assembling the Perfect Lean Team

You’ve noticed that your department’s processes have been getting a little time-consuming lately and that your own workflow feels sluggish. But why call in an outside expert to investigate the problem when you’ve got a lean team in your organization just waiting to be assembled? Read on to find out what these teams are all about, and what they can do for you.

What is a lean team?

The concept of lean management was originally invented by Dr. Shigeo Shingō, an engineer who studied factory management. He’s best known for his study of Toyota’s lean manufacturing production method – called the Toyota Production System or TPS.

In lean manufacturing, Toyota sought to produce the most value for the customer through the most optimized resources, cutting all waste. Steps in a workflow were analyzed, and anything that seemed to waste resources, create inconsistencies, or overburden the system was eliminated. Stripping manufacturing down to its bare essentials proved to be lucrative for Toyota, who passed General Motors as the world’s largest automaker as a result of their new system.

After lean manufacturing came lean culture, including lean management, lean principles, and lean teams. These were all created with the express purpose of cutting down the clutter of processes and making businesses more efficient. This is the job of a lean team: looking at the workflow in the business and improving it.

Shingō’s 5W

“A relentless barrage of ‘whys’ is the best way to prepare your mind to pierce the clouded veil of thinking caused by the status quo. Use it often.” ­– Shigeo Shingō

In Dr. Shingō’s research on Toyota’s system, he posited that the primary way in which lean manufacturing succeeds is that every time a problem occurs, there are five questions that can result in an answer. He called this 5W, or “five whys,” meaning that when a problem occurs, one asks why five consecutive times until they have identified the problem. These are some commonly asked questions in the 5W model:

  • Why is this object necessary?
  • Why is this subject necessary?
  • Why use this method?
  • Why is space being utilized in this way?
  • Why is it taking this long?

Interestingly, the questions lean teams ask also hold the components that form the basis of any well-structured lean team – essentially, the 5Ws are a version of who, what, when, where, and why.

How to form a lean team

Following Dr. Shingō’s question model, we can identify five components of a successful lean team: the objects, the subjects, the method, the space utilization, and the time. Without fundamentally rethinking these five whys, one’s lean team could be doomed to repeat the mistakes their company culture makes in assembling teams and creating workflows – the very mistakes that lean teams are looking to fix.

1. The objects

First, you’ve got to have something your lean team is striving for before everything else falls into place. What is your lean team looking to analyze and improve? Are there processes you feel could be made “leaner” or less complicated? A lean team’s bread and butter are projects that require streamlining and condensing, so any facet of your company, communication, or workflow that needs to be improved is on the table.

2. The subjects

You can’t choose team members that best suit the goals of the mission if you have no mission. But once you have an idea of what you want your lean team to accomplish, you’re ready to choose the right people for the job. Planview’s Lean Business Survey showed that even 88% of lean teams who identify as “beginners” report project success, so as long as your team is chosen carefully, your outcomes will be good.

Like the team from Ocean’s Eleven, you’re going to need one expert in every field to make your lean team succeed. But more importantly, you need characteristics that unite team members and create an environment of leadership, honesty, and alacrity. Everyone has to get on the same page and be just as open as they are responsible and results-driven. After all, studies show that the more connected your employees are, the more productive they’ll be.

3. The method

Now that you have your objects and your subjects, you’ll need a method to your madness. Lean teams usually create systems that support long-term improvement, ones that define or redefine value and eliminate waste.

The culture of lean management is rich and overflowing with helpful material, so even a new lean team has the tools they need to reach their goals. According to the Lean Business Survey, almost 70% of successful lean teams cite executive sponsorship as their greatest resource. Additionally, there are lean metrics and, of course, tech that tracks time management, productivity, and more.

4. The space

In lean manufacturing, space utilization is typically more concrete and revolves around the literal space of a factory. However, on a lean team, you’re looking for the best utilization of your mental space – in particular, your bandwidth. That means that if you’re on a lean team, your workflow has got to be meticulously planned, and you’ve got to approach your work with excitement and diligence. Lean teams aren’t for the burnt-out, and they’re not a good fit for those who need to lay off the hustle culture and cruise.

The secret key to a successful lean team is upskilling. Without constantly improving, lean teams won’t be continually proficient in the latest trends of their industry. Having a talent that also prides upskilling as a necessary feature of their work lives also indicates a particular type of personality that fits well on a lean team – someone who keeps improving themselves alongside their company.

5. The time

Lastly, the time your project takes is something you’ll need to keep in mind. While lean teams aren’t necessarily in a rush, they’re built for optimization, meaning that projects most likely won’t linger or stall. Lean teams have a lot on their shoulders, as the longer they spend on a project, the longer their object spends lingering in inefficiency.

Responsibility and leadership are big parts of lean teams, and often, members are chosen because of their strong sense of accountability and readiness to accomplish tasks. As a result, time spent on a project is important with a lean team, and making a timeline that’s meticulously calculated is absolutely necessary.

The takeaway on lean teams

Lean teams obviously aren’t for everyone, but they’re certainly a helpful part of any business – much like having an in-house consultant to tell you how to optimize things. And with the right people and the right support, these groups can cut away the fat of your organization to create a nice simplified organization that’s… well, pretty lean.