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Updated: Jun 13, 2023

by tony Heath

Companies that practice lean have told me that it’s challenging to find and train people to practice lean on the job. The traditional “Sage on the Stage” approach to teaching and training is inconsistent with lean ideas. Traditional education methods are notoriously weak, so formal training doesn’t work for most people.

I first heard about lean when attending six sigma yellow belt training, and the trainers mentioned lean as a different improvement model. I approached them during a break, and they recommended a book titled The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt. I read it, and my life was changed. But it wasn’t changed by the book or the ideas; it gave me a way to talk about who I am and what I do.

The lean people I know all say that lean is a way of thinking. This means that lean is an organizing set of ideas that they hold. Probably lean thinking is not one thing but many. Thinking ties to actions, so what are the behaviors or habits of lean?

Months ago, thinking over my life as a lean guy, I wondered, “What are the habits that happen naturally before any lean training?” I thought quickly of a few and then jotted down others as they occurred in my daily life.

Here are the habits that some people have that fit into the lean thinkers’ ideas.

1. Curiosity is a mental habit that serves people well in many careers. Lean

people wonder how things work and don’t work. I remember my dad looking

up at a ceiling and saying, “I wonder what that vent does.”

2. Touch it once. Whatever the activity, lean people want to touch the tool or

object once during an action. It is wasteful to put down the device and pick it

up again. For example, I learned long ago that it is far more efficient to

consider an email once and act than to hold onto it and decide later.

3. Keep tools near the jobs. It’s logical and efficient to store a pair of scissors

near the dog food bag or a wrench where you are likely to need it.

4. Clean up as you go. Lean people appreciate the value of cleanliness and

order. Rather than putting it off, they tend to sweep and shine as the project

moves along. I recently added an empty bucket for used rags to my car wash


5. Move as little as possible while working. I recently picked up three items in a

plastic bag and placed the bag in a cart. So, I arranged the supplies and cart

where I could easily reach them. Whether assembling parts on the job or

detailing the car, keeping everything you need close is sensible.

6. Make one trip each way. When we walk back and forth between two work

sites, or the toolbox and the work site, it’s logical and efficient to carry

everything you need in each direction. When I go in and out of the house to

wash my car, I try to carry the buckets and rags out in one trip and the

vacuum cleaner and the buckets back the other way.

7. Keep moving. Many of the lean zealots I know keep pushing. This may be

characterological, learned, or just a habit. The exception occurs when

focused on a task.

8. Recognize extravagance. Lean people seem to ferret out excess. We don’t

want extra stuff, especially not pricey tools or cars. We want function.

9. Appreciate quality. Every lean person I know loves quality. They buy good

enough tools, cars, and clothes.

10. Sniff out waiting. Most of us hate to wait for services. I’m not hostile when I

wait, but I always sense it. Waiting is a big waste of life, manufacturing, and


11. Things are out of place. When anything is out of place, we notice. Like

belongs with like, and exceptions alert us.

In conclusion, I have tried to describe the pre-education habits of lean people. While I doubt I have them all, these may be helpful in several ways.

First, we could ask potential hires whether they have these habits. People who move like this already will fit into any lean team. Imagine the training we could skip!

Second, we can refrain from taking credit for built-in tendencies. The people that seem natural to learn are those with built-in habits.

Third, we can nurture lean habits in young people. Every employer I know is desperate to find good employees. Maybe some of us should work in schools to identify and promote lean habits for the good of everyone.


Tony Heath is an innovative lean consultant skilled in building winning relationships with teams and business leaders. Using vision and respect for people, I lead by example and get things done.

Certified Lean Practitioner, UnitedHealth Group; AME Midwest Region Vice President; Past-President of Illinois Association for Healthcare Quality, 2015-2018; Top presenter at national conferences

Tony led improvements in Medicare Stars ratings in primary care organizations and promoted standard work in care management, telephonic patient support, and practice health and safety. Knowledge of integrated behavioral health in primary care and ASO operations for Medicare beneficiaries. Completed end-to-end value stream maps for two large physician groups/IPAs.

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