This is the back story to seven of the more than 30 research papers that I have written about Lean management. These seven papers focus on Lean leadership and are grounded in my own experiences as a Lean leader while working in industry. Therefore, they are practical works despite having been published in peer-reviewed academic journals.

Anyone can learn the tools, but Lean leadership in the early 1990s was seen as a mysterious art that few understood and even fewer had mastered. What’s the significance of my research? Two things:

  • My research has transformed Lean leadership from an art that few knew understood into a science that everyone can learn and practice.
  • All the big questions have been answered. We now know what Lean leadership is and how to correctly lead a Lean transformation.

I have never been a “Lean tools” or operations management guy. From the beginning, my interest has always been Lean leadership and the integration of the “Continuous Improvement” and “Respect for People” principles. I was the first university researcher to focus exclusively on Lean leadership because it was apparent to me, soon after my Lean training began with Shingijutsu in 1994, that leadership was the key to Lean success. I’m sure you agree.


Continuous Personal Improvement
Journal of Workplace Learning, 1998
Soon after beginning my Lean training with Shingijutsu in 1994, I recognized that shop-floor Lean tools and methods could easily be transformed into leadership development tools. This paper describes how the tools and methods can be re-purposed to help simplify Lean leadership development in organizations undergoing a Lean transformation. I used these leadership development tools in my own efforts to become a Lean leader. It works.

Lean Behaviors
Management Decision, 1998
This paper defined the eighth waste, “behavioral waste,” and made the “Respect for People” principle explicit rather than implied. I recognized that leaders’ behaviors had to be consistent with the Lean management system that they were advocating. I developed a way to express this based on Womack and Jones’ Lean Thinking framework. This also helps simplify Lean leadership development. I used this construct in my own efforts to become a Lean leader, and it helped me greatly. “Lean Behaviors” won an Outstanding Paper award.

Linking Leaders’ Beliefs to Their Behaviors and Competencies
Management Decision, 2003
This paper reflects my dissatisfaction with traditional human resources leadership competency models and their ability to affect behavior change in organizations. Competency models ignore the beliefs that managers have about business and therefore assume that all managers share the same beliefs. That, clearly, is not the case. How do we know? All you have to do is observe a conventional leader and a capable Lean leader, and it quickly becomes apparent that they possess different beliefs about business. This paper explores those differences in detail.

Using Value Stream Maps to Improve Leadership
Leadership and Organizational Development Journal, 2004
What do we use value stream maps for? To document current state processes and identify opportunities for kaizen to get to a future state. That’s great. But it turns out value stream maps are far more useful than that. This ground breaking paper describes how value stream maps can be used in a completely different way: As a diagnostic tool to identify and correct leadership problems. For most people, this leads to a “Eureka!” moment. They finally see, in clear and practical terms, the difference between conventional leadership and Lean leadership.

Leaders Lost in Transformation
Leadership and Organizational Development Journal, 2005
All Lean practitioners and Lean advocates are unhappy to see so few successful Lean transformations. While there are many factors that contribute to this outcome, leadership is a prominent feature in organizations’ lack of success. This paper describes common Lean transformation errors made by leaders. It also describes the difficulty that senior managers have in grasping the implicit and explicit aspects of both task and behavioral elements of Lean management.

Standardized Work for Executive Leadership
Leadership and Organizational Development Journal, 2008
Senior managers can be fussy about lower-level workers adhering to standardized work. They have good reasons for this. But what about the executives? Do they follow standardized work for the processes that they are engaged in? Does standardized work even exist for executive work? This paper presents a standardized work model for executives in relation to their strategic work. It is a new approach for improving leadership capabilities and effectiveness.

Music as a Framework to Better Understand Lean Leadership
Leadership and Organizational Development Journal, 2013
Brimming with deep insights and creativity, this paper presents a new and innovative way to explain why most senior managers have great difficulty comprehending and correctly practicing Lean leadership. Using music as a framework greatly improves one’s understanding of Lean management, Lean leadership, and how to learn them and become proficient.


The research findings from these papers have been distilled into practical books that you will learn much from:

Better Thinking, Better Results: Case Study and Analysis of an Enterprise-Wide Lean Transformation (2007, second edition) – The complete story of The Wiremold Company’s Lean Transformation, under the leadership of Art Byrne. An award-winning Lean classic.

Practical Lean Leadership: A Strategic Leadership Guide for Executives (2008) – A workbook that guides the executive team members through basic and advanced concepts and practices in Lean leadership.

Moving Forward Faster: The Mental Evolution from Fake Lean to REAL Lean (2011) – A distillation of the Real Lean book series. It presents the economic, social, political ways of thinking that leaders must possess in order to be successful with Lean management.

Speed Leadership: A New Way to Lead for Rapidly Changing Times (2015, second edition) – A true breakthrough in understanding leadership and how to improve leadership capabilities and effectiveness. An amazingly practical, insightful, and innovative process view of leadership.

Lean Is Not Mean: 68 Practical Lessons in Lean Leadership (2015) – Describes the differences, both great and small, between Lean leaders and conventional leaders. You’ll end up highlighting most of the book.

13 Responses to The Back Story – Lean Leadership Research

  1. I really admire your work but your claim that your claim that Lean Leadership is a science (cf. “research has transformed Lean leadership from an art that few knew understood into a science that everyone can learn and practice.”) is simply extraordinary. I expect much better from the scientific rigour you are usually demonstrating.

  2. To stick with the Oxford English Dictionary, which provides several definition, the 4th definition seems to be the most pertinent to what is commonly understood as science as opposed to art: “A discipline, field of study, or activity concerned with theory rather than method, or requiring the knowledge and systematic application of principles, rather than relying on traditional rules, acquired skill, or intuition.” and a “A branch of study that deals with a connected body of demonstrated truths or with observed facts systematically classified and more or less comprehended by general laws, and incorporating trustworthy methods (now esp. those involving the scientific method and which incorporate falsifiable hypotheses) for the discovery of new truth in its own domain.”
    The way I look at it, Lean is mainly concerned method rather than theory.

    • Bob Emiliani says:

      I see you are a student of the Philosophy of Science and concerned with the “demarkation problem.” That is definitely good stuff.

      If one were to ascribe a “theory of Lean,” it would actually have to be more specific: a “theory of TPS”, meaning, a “theory of flow” – material and information flow. In Speed Leadership, a central basis for the book is information flow. Method is ex-post facto to theory. The methods for flow were developed by rapid cycle trial-and-error and have evolved over time to test the theory. And, in this case, theory-testing is never done because circumstances change all the time that disrupt flow.

      Also, sometimes I think people associate science with slow experimentation and detailed documentation. Science can also be rapid experimentation, and, in the case of Lean, with documentation in the form of the new process itself (an observable phenomenon) and standard work.

      Pascal, thank you for your comments. They put my mind to work, which is always fun, and the comments/replies will make for interesting reading for those who read this blog post.

  3. Great conversation! First, philosophy is not science. Lean, understood as it was developed by Toyota, is collaborative science. Collaborative science is used in conservation biology, in environmental sociology and increasingly in other disciplines.

    Science studies do not rely on “Oxford English Dictionary” definitions of science. What is science? Science – natural or social – essentially consists of 3 elements:

    (1) a scientific object of study that is not ‘What You See is What You Get’ and that removes as many assumptions as possible. For Lean, the object of study as Bob Emiliani aptly points out – the object of study in Lean is flow ‘the process of energy moving through a system’;
    (2) a rigorous approach plus measurement tools (these vary widely by discipline, but in Lean include the rigorous PDSA experimental approach and all visual management and other visual tools that make flow visible and measurable. You can’t measure what you can’t see in science. Lean relies on empirical observation and evidence, and empiricism dates back to the 17th century (starting in the Middle Ages) for Western Science);
    (3) a scientific explanation (in Lean several tools exist to convey explanations, including the A3).

    The stereotype of the natural sciences as being the ‘only’ way of doing science is just that – a stereotype – and it leads many astray to assume that only the PDSA is needed for Lean to be ‘science’. I will spare details on epistemology :-), but Lean in a nutshell is not positivism, but is social construction.

    Lean is science! When it is sold as ‘tools’ or half-baked waste chasing, it is simply not Lean.

    • Bob Emiliani says:

      There is no disagreement that Lean is social construction. Within that framework it is possible to understand leadership, which had previously been viewed mostly as art, scientifically. I show in my book Speed Leadership (and somewhat in Practical Lean Leadership as well) that the art component of leadership is much smaller than people realize. The fact that this has not been done before, until now, confounds people. Understanding leadership as processes enables one to comprehend leadership as science. It opens the door to more effective practice by much larger numbers of people. The “art” aspect, often associated with personality, greatly diminishes, so that anyone can become an effective leader.

      • Interesting follow-up post!

        To start, Art and Science generally do not seriously ‘mix’ 🙂 Science, be it natural or social science, is science if it meets the core elements of science (as does Lean if it focuses squarely on flow, see above post)

        With regard to knowledge, that’s a whole other aspect of Lean. In epistemology, the spectrum of understanding for knowledge is wide with ‘positivism’ at one end (with knowledge as truth by experts) and ‘social constructionism’ closer to the other end (with knowledge understood as socially constructed).

        It is generally more and more understood that knowledge is socially constructed – and so is ignorance for that matter! See my chapter ‘Unfolding the map’ in the Handbook of Ignorance edited by M. Gross and L. McGoey – http://tinyurl.com/jdmu96x in https://www.routledge.com/products/9780415718967.

        Lean is an excellent example of collaborative science – where everyone collaborates in a community of equals – to solve problems every day. Each individual can gather data on the flow of work, each individual can analyze data on the flow of work, each individual can address problems at their level – and collaborate – to solve problems. There are no experts in collaborative science, and in collaborating, all are socially constructing what holds value, what is the problem, and what could be a good countermeasure. Collaborative science is used effectively in conservation biology and in environmental sociology to name a few.

        It is essentially social construction that lends the greatest strength to Lean – gone is command-and-control!

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