Four Ways Lean Supports DEI and DEI Supports Lean

By Florence Gerber, MBA (Mariano and Associates, LLC), LeRoy Thompson, and Steve Mueller; July 27, 2022


Lean is successful when we empower people to improve how they work together. DEI is successful when people understand and set aside preconceptions that pose barriers to teamwork. In today’s organizations, DEI supports Lean, and Lean supports DEI.

Lean and DEI achieve results when both are engaged together

Your company is committed to its diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) program. But how can DEI increase teamwork and productivity once the audits, training, and facilitation sessions have been completed? The answer lies in integrating the DEI effort within the “everyday work” people are doing.

Lean provides a systematic approach to eliminating wastes (defects, waiting time, transportation/motion, inventory, processing, overproduction, inferior methods, underutilized human talent) by focusing on what adds value to a process and eliminating what does not.

DEI helps organizations become more resilient, creative, and competitive by opening itself to people of different backgrounds and perspectives.

We know that Kaizen techniques and events bring employees together to realize incremental improvements. The 10 principles of Kaizen apply equally well to DEI. Both DEI and Kaizen require us to let go of assumptions, proactively solve problems, not accept the status quo, take an iterative, adaptive approach to change, look for solutions as we find mistakes, create environments where everyone feels empowered to contribute, and ask “why” to get to root causes, cull information and opinion from many people, use creativity to make small improvements and never stop improving.

Lean and DEI share common elements

Companies that succeed in Lean and DEI recognize that the people who perform the work are the source of creative actions that yield continuous improvement, aka Kaizen, one of the two pillars of Lean. The other pillar is respect for people: the potential value that its people can provide for the customer.

Just as continuous improvement teams support a ‘what can we do better today’ mindset, DEI helps create a culture that values human potential. In using cross-functional teams, companies that embrace Lean and DEI benefit from multiple perspectives that drive innovation.

Both Lean and DEI rely on a firm, visible commitment from top management.

For both Lean and DEI, leaders must determine what new elements need to be incorporated into management practices and which current practices should be sustained, revised, or eliminated.

Patience is part of establishing Lean methods. Employee buy-in for new methods requires trust and transparent communication. The same applies to DEI. Leaders must allow time for inquiries from employees who are not yet sold on the switch to Lean or the pursuit of DEI.

DEI enhances Lean by more effectively mining employee input

When Lean is implemented without ensuring the organization is appropriately diverse, equitable, and actively inclusive in its treatment of its employees, it cannot fulfill the two pillars of Lean – respect for people and continuous improvement. Why? Because consciously or unconsciously restricting the participation of certain employees in the Lean process increases the risk that outcomes are suboptimal and not in the customer’s best interest.

Lean depends on getting the most value out of the organization’s processes for its customers. It does this by involving its most valuable resource, its employees, in continuous improvement activities such as Kaizen, Value Stream Mapping, and Total Quality Management. Optimizing DEI helps Lean organizations realize more of the potential of their workforce so that its continuous improvement efforts translate to customer value.

Lean enables a more thorough DEI transformation by reengineering internal processes that are obstacles to DEI

When an organization evolves its DEI culture, it must evaluate its overt actions and communication. It must also assess its business and human resource policies and procedures to discover if they may be the cause of exclusion, inequity, or a lack of diversity. Lean ensures that improvements are driven by the people who do the work and are most aware of any inadvertent damage that would result from excluding certain people.

Some changes may require a directive from management to cease and desist. However, most business processes either add value to the customer, reduce operating costs, or enhance value to the organization. From a DEI perspective, some processes may clearly be the ‘wrong way to do the right thing’. This is why it’s important to find solutions that preserve or increase the intended benefit, while also creating the desired human environment.

How to mesh Lean with DEI and DEI with Lean

DEI and Lean solve a tech training dilemma

A firm implementing a new Human Resources (HR) software program experienced compliance and performance problems with electronic submission of hours worked among staff representing different generations:

The Lean consultant practicing and incorporating DEI concepts conducted a Kaizen event to assess the roll-out process. She discovered that the project leads were from the Millennial and Generation Z generations. They developed a manual with written instructions thinking this was enough for all staff to understand what to do. Millennials and Generation Zs are more confident in their technology skills, but the written instructions were not enough for the Baby Boomer and some Generation X individuals. The people who were reluctant to use new technology needed to be included in the training design. With their input, the training program of the new software changed by not only having a written manual but also options to sign up for a training class to go over the information, practice on the computer, get answers to questions from the instructor, and address concerns. The older employees were able to better adapt and learn the time-reduction benefits of the new HR technology by doing instead of reading.

Increasing health screenings with Lean and DEI

A US government health center conducting colorectal cancer (CRC) screening among an adult population of immigrants and refugees was failing to obtain samples to be screened. Suspecting the collection process was the problem, the center hired a Lean consultant with experience in incorporating DEI concepts. The challenge: help increase the volume of specimens being submitted for testing. The consultant helped guide the Kaizen team to discover that the written instructions caused confusion on how people would submit their samples. Looking through a DEI lens, the Lean consultant’s facilitation helped the team collectively understand how the term “stool” needed to be described in a more relatable manner. A clinical staff member with lived experiences as an immigrant recommended changing the word “stool” to “poop” in the instructions. Although doctors in the cross functional Kaizen team were reluctant to change a word that had been used for many years, the group agreed replacing the text to “poop” would be more effective. As a result of this word change in the instructions, more immigrants and refugees were screened for colorectal cancer. After this experience, the workgroup no longer consisted of white personnel looking at the situation through their eyes but included staff who understood the population as immigrants themselves.

Lean management’s success stems from tapping the human resources that DEI enhances. Lean is the perfect framework to move DEI from just another good idea to a continuing source of gains in productivity. In short, Lean makes DEI more effective, and DEI helps realize Lean’s full potential.

Why Removing Non-Value Steps from Your Processes is Mission-Critical Right Now

By Florence Gerber, MBA (Mariano and Associates, LLC) for NWCPE; February 2020

In today’s unprecedented and uncertain times, business owners are looking for ways to shift, adapt, and evolve to changing conditions. If you’re in this difficult situation, consider stopping to identify the various daily tasks it will take to attract customers. It isn’t uncommon for business owners to reject this suggestion, labeling it as anything but a priority. 

However, think of it this way: there are a limited number of hours in each day and scarcity of resources. You can’t afford to not dedicate time to intentionally study what the processes are and determine if they are essential. 

Through observation you can make a list of the various daily work activities, but what do you do with the information? First, you must understand the needs of your customers.

These needs may look like:

Tasks that do not have an immediate, direct impact on these needs should be analyzed to determine their level of importance (if any). 

The Lean method of identifying “waste” provides the guidelines for analysis. Tasks that fall under any of the following criteria indicate a non-value added activity to customers and a reason to stop doing it and/or find a different approach (otherwise known as “busy work” that “takes up too much time”).

For example, when reviewing inbox emails, do you experience difficulty finding the customer messages that need replies? Maybe it takes you 10 minutes of searching to find it. In this case,  the time it took to look for the message does not add value to the customer. It is “wasted” time and an opportunity to improve, reduce and/or eliminate the searching process. A new approach would be to use the flagging Google Mail functionality and mark it with a red star. This visual aid easily identifies messages that need responses.

Even if customers don’t care about your non-value added process steps, you should.  Eliminating any “waste” in daily processes leads to an effective and efficient work environment where only the right work effort is used for the needs of paying customers. 

Building Emotional Intelligence Boosts Leadership Effectiveness

By Florence Gerber, MBA (Mariano and Associates, LLC) for Portland PMI; July 2019

Emotions are innate, originating in the nervous system as a reaction to our environment. Though the words emotion and feeling are often used interchangeably, feelings arise from the part of the brain linked to reasoning and function to make sense of situations using past experiences and reactions to emotions.

Famed professor of psychiatry Robert Plutchik, Ph.D., studied emotions and came up with eight primary ones, each a polar opposite of another. 

Trust: Disgust                   Joy: Sadness                  Fear: Anger                  Surprise: Anticipation

As Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions (see image) demonstrates, the intensity of emotions spreads from highest at the center to most diluted at the outside. The circle also depicts (between the petals) how primary emotions combine to form new ones. For example, Plutchik argued that Trust + Fear = Submission, and Anticipation + Anger = Aggression. Similarly, Disgust + Anger = Contempt, and Surprise + Sadness = Disapproval.

We’ve all seen these types of complex emotions play out in professional settings. Building our emotional intelligence can teach us how to react to, counter, and even leverage these emotions to harness positive results.

Since emotions drive human behavior, understanding your own emotions and any behavior derived from them―as well as those of team members―can help guide decision-making and how you can facilitate interactions as a project manager.

Using Plutchnik’s Wheel, project managers can heighten their emotional intelligence by consciously identifying their own emotions in a variety of environments (e.g., notice you get irritable when a teammate is consistently late for meetings). Pay attention to your own behavior in light of that irritation. Does your reaction then impact the meetings?

Building emotional intelligence takes practice. First, work on yourself, then apply your advanced consciousness to others when you interact. Is their behavior tinged with emotion? If so, what might be driving it?

Intentionally paying attention to emotions, reactions and their possible sources of origin, can help you become a better leader who helps build positive changes for better results.