Practical Tips for Managing a Lean Team Successfully

Alex Novkov

Alex Novkov

Content Lead

Table of Contents:

One of the key benefits of Lean is that teams are largely autonomous and self-organizing. The assumption is that every team member knows what is expected of them and when, and are able to work independently on tasks and deliver quality work with little oversight.

However, this basic assumption of autonomy and self-sufficiency does not mean that they don't require management.

In fact, the Lean manager's role as coach, educator, supporter, facilitator, and advocate is a complex and nuanced one, combining constant attention and awareness, with emotional balance and stability. When managing a lean team, the person in charge needs to encourage and facilitate the constant growth and improvement of each individual and work alongside them in the pursuit of perfection.

Implementing the Principles of Lean

The 5 principles of Lean management evolved in the manufacturing industry. Over time, they have proven to be effective in a broad range of applications, including service and knowledge work.

Those principles make logical sense and sound simple to enact, but may pose some specific challenges to project and product managers. Here are some considerations for every step of the process:

1. Identifying Value

Lean teaches that value should be determined by the end consumer of a product. However, in many companies, there is internal disagreement about “value.”

Often the work is organized around the preferences or ideas of executives or shareholders, rather than the end customer. Where there is confusion about what value is and who the work is designed for, it can be difficult to enact the 5 principles and effectively manage a lean team.

For example, this can easily happen when a product company is developing a new groundbreaking feature. If the executive suite or the product manager is confident that the market needs such a feature and decides to deploy it without testing the need by interviewing current customers, there is a fair amount of risk that customers won’t find it valuable and all the invested work will go to waste.

2. Mapping the Value Stream

Clearly identifying and articulating your internal processes can be a time-consuming task. It's important to get this information from front-line employees executing the work rather than using processes described or defined by managers. It is your front-line employees who have the most insight into waste. Implementing the Lean technique of value stream mapping is an excellent practice for visualizing all the steps of your process and spotting non-value-adding activities.

This is especially important for achieving continuous improvement of your workflow and perfecting your Kanban boards. Therefore, it is a good idea to do such activities collectively or at least put any potential changes up for discussion before implementing them.

3. Creating Flow

Once you've identified waste in the value stream, you can begin to refine processes to create a flow of work.

Introducing tools like workflow automation to streamline functions and reduce redundancies, a Kanban system to visualize the workflow and identify bottlenecks, and designate roles and introduce accountability for approvals and sign-offs, will help to improve work sequencing and create flow.

4. Establishing Pull

As a manager, you should constrain work-in-progress to maximize the effectiveness of the team and tighten flow so that workflow efficiency increases.

It would be best to keep your team focused on as few tasks as possible. This way, they can multitask less often and deliver value to your customers in shorter time frames.

As a wise man once said, “Multitasking is the opportunity to screw up more than one thing at a time”.

5. Achieving Continuous Improvement

Remain vigilant for possible process improvements and potential setbacks. You should define a set of metrics that you want to improve and keep a close eye on them. You can call these Agile metrics.

For example, if you want to achieve more frequent delivery to the market, you should monitor the lead time of each order and the cycle time of the assignments that consist it in order to spot areas to improve.

lean principles

Learning how to put the 5 principles into practice is the groundwork you need to lay down before being able to make the most of lean management. Consider how you can put them to good use and don’t be afraid to experiment.

Let's explore the characteristics of an effective Lean team and how to achieve them.

What Are the Characteristics of an Effective Lean Team?

All managers know that there are really only two things you can manage: your process and your people.

In the ideal lean team:

  • Roles, duties, and responsibilities are clearly defined. Every team member knows without asking what they should be working on now, what they will work on next, and what the acceptance criteria are for their work
  • Every team and every individual on the team is empowered and encouraged to facilitate change and make improvements within their scope of responsibility
  • Every individual and every team remains engaged and effective. That means they are focused and aligned with team, department, and company goals. They work together in an environment that is supportive, collaborative, and where both success and failure are shared
  • The team is proactive. Visualizing work on a Kanban board makes it easy for everyone on the team to spot potential delays and roadblocks. The ideal lean team either adjusts behaviors within their area of responsibility to compensate or proactively seeks solutions and offers suggestions and support as appropriate

Obtaining these characteristics may require some time, but it will be well worth the effort because it practically makes micromanagement unnecessary.

Lead with Respect

A great starting point for instilling Lean values and growing a lean Team is to Lead with Respect.

“Respect for people” is a management philosophy built on 5 distinctive principles:

Respect for People’s Opinion

Keep open feedback loops and frequently ask individual team members if they see areas of your process that can be improved.

Respect for People’s Suggestions

Evaluate and implement your team’s suggestions when they are worth trying, and give credit when it is due.

Respect for People’s Ability to Challenge

Create an atmosphere where people not only share their points of view when being asked, but they raise questions and challenge the process without being asked.

Respect for People No Matter Their Area of Work

Don’t evaluate suggestions based on expertise alone. Sometimes a developer might come up with a brilliant marketing idea and vice versa. Keep your mind open.

Apply the Coaching Kata

Another useful Lean practice for managing a team is to use the Coaching Kata. The Coaching Kata is a system whereby the manager asks questions and waits for the subordinate to respond, leading them down the path toward their own solution. The manager listens attentively, encourages creativity, and expresses a willingness to learn from the success of the subordinate.

The Coaching Kata is based on 7 key questions. These questions can be asked during a daily stand-up in front of the Kanban board, where problems are shared and visible, in small one-on-one coaching sessions, or in larger team meetings to focus and align the whole team.

Kanban team cadences meetings

The seven questions are:

  • What is the target condition?
  • What is the actual condition?
  • What obstacles prevent you from reaching the target condition?
  • Which one are you addressing now?
  • What is your next step?
  • What is your expected outcome?
  • When can we go see what you have learned?

Asking these questions and actively listening to the answers empowers team members to resolve their own problems by working together and taking responsibility for the actions and outcomes. Lean leadership means respecting, trusting, and supporting.

Lean assumes that every team and every individual has an important contribution to make, and it is your responsibility to lead and coach them in that direction. Lean coaching is hard on the problem and gentle with the people.

Achieving continuous improvement requires you to constantly refine your processes to remove waste and add value, and constantly cultivating your team to improve performance and work efficiently.

Done with respect, an open mind, and a spirit of continual learning, there is no end to how much you and your team can progress.



Alex Novkov

Alex Novkov

Content Lead

Energetic and practical, passionate about social media, creative writing, heavy weights, and outdoor activities.