How to develop and motivate employees towards Lean manufacturing

Lean manufacturing, when done right, can improve productivity and reduce waste on the plant floor. Successful implementation requires buy-in from workers. See three ways to change workers’ perception of Lean and build trust.

By Mary Donelan December 2, 2021
Courtesy: KMC Systems Inc.

Lean manufacturing wasn’t always a widely-adopted model used by production floor personnel. In 1996,  James Womack and Daniel Jones wrote a book titled, Lean Thinking: Banish Waste and Create Wealth in Your Corporation, which introduced the five principles of Lean – value, the value stream, flow, pull and perfection. These principles created the foundation for Lean manufacturing that can minimize waste and improve productivity.

Why did Lean manufacturing struggle to gain traction? While many agree today Lean manufacturing is valuable, it suffered from one common and problematic misconception when first introduced – the elimination of waste correlating to the elimination of jobs.

The truth is, when done right, Lean manufacturing does the exact opposite – it opens opportunities for employees to focus on mission-critical objectives within a manufacturing facility. This creates more opportunity for the employee and more value for the end customer. Of course, misconceptions don’t go away overnight. What can be done to eliminate this myth among employees? Bring employees along on the Lean journey and unlock the value of Lean for the entire organization.

Changing initial perceptions of Lean manufacturing

A first step in changing the negative perception of Lean is understanding why Lean manufacturing isn’t supported by employees. In many cases, they believe Lean manufacturing means jobs will be lost. There also is often a feeling among employees when Lean manufacturing is being implemented their work will change or be eliminated. There also can be some general hesitancy around implementing Lean manufacturing. Comments like “we’ve done this before” or “that’s not how we do things here” are common for a team worried about the potential pitfalls of new processes. It can be hard to change this perception when these feelings are manifested.

However, when implemented effectively, Lean manufacturing can eliminate unnecessary processes or rework, allowing employees to focus on other aspects of their jobs while allowing them to grow into their careers. Even more so, Lean can help to foster a better work-life balance for the staff. While these benefits can help change Lean’s perception, the plan needs to be laid out to show them the value.

Three ways to change workers’ perception of Lean and build trust

To combat negative perceptions about Lean, it is important to listen to the team’s input. Companies need to reach out to employees to collaborate and ask how you can help. Fostering effective communication around the changes and why they are beneficial is critical. You need the team’s buy-in to be successful.

It is also important to gather feedback from the team on Lean manufacturing practices. If companies put the right ideas and approaches in place they can build mutual trust once the team sees the effectiveness Lean manufacturing can achieve. This trust is built by an environmental change. A few examples of what can be implemented in a manufacturing environment that embraces Lean manufacturing principles includes:

1. Key performance indicators (KPIs), goals, visibility

Create an atmosphere where everyone is striving to achieve the same goals. This fosters communication around processes and how to fix problems to hit the goals. What’s best is the motivation this exudes from the team. Seeing goals and targets go from red to green lifts spirits and fosters alignment across groups. This also breeds healthy competition while shifting the culture to empowering each other to hit goals. This can be a powerful team motivator as employees see daily, weekly and monthly goals being met in an efficient manner. This also generates an energy among the team by increasing output while decreasing unwanted overtime.

2. Data automation

Organizations collect a lot of data. However, many manufacturing organizations aren’t necessarily analyzing/using the data as effectively as they could be. Teams need to effectively analyze the data they have by moving toward electronic and automated processes. Data on quality, testing data, first pass yield data and time passed data are critical in eliminating potential bottlenecks.

3. People

Any effective manufacturing environment is built on people with different viewpoints, but a shared mindset. In many cases, this is about putting customers first. A customer-focused mindset is at the center of any successful organization with internal teams united by one common goal. In the medical device sector, that is a commonly shared goal of shaping the health and future of the world.

Open and non-judgmental communication is also a contributing factor in changing perceptions. Managers and employees need to create an environment where everyone is comfortable flagging and sharing challenges, issues, ideas and more to effectively implement the principles and practices of Lean manufacturing.

Lean manufacturing can eliminate unnecessary processes or rework, allowing employees to focus on other aspects of their jobs while allowing them to grow into their careers. Courtesy: KMC Systems Inc.

Lean manufacturing can eliminate unnecessary processes or rework, allowing employees to focus on other aspects of their jobs while allowing them to grow into their careers. Courtesy: KMC Systems Inc.

Seeing a cultural shift about Lean manufacturing

It’s worth asking when a company will know if they’ve changed Lean manufacturing’s perception. While every team is different, always refer back to one of the guiding principles of Lean – the people. If there is a shift in perception and general acknowledgement of Lean principles, then the team will begin approaching leadership, bring new ideas to the table to hit targets, improve processes and engage more.

Altering a misperception about a manufacturing approach doesn’t change overnight, but with a little hands-on coaching, goal-setting, collaboration and inclusion, and a strong focus on people, companies can positively change the Lean manufacturing’s perception.

In the process, they may even engender a new audience of employees who will take pride in making a difference.

Mary Donelan, executive director of manufacturing, KMC Systems Inc. Edited by Chris Vavra, web content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology,


Keywords: Lean manufacturing, workforce development


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Author Bio: Mary Donelan, executive director of manufacturing, KMC Systems, Inc.