What Is a Lean Team and How to Build One in Practice?

Alex Novkov

Alex Novkov

Content Lead

Table of Contents:

In the business realm, a "lean team" is described as a group of individuals structured to optimize efficiency and reduce waste across processes and systems. Well-regarded for their autonomy and capacity for self-organization, establishing such teams is nonetheless more challenging than it appears. A pivotal characteristic of a lean team is the active engagement of each member in driving ongoing improvements, echoing the sentiment of Lean thinking proponent John Shook who stated, "Lean isn’t lean if it doesn’t involve everyone."

We'll explore the concept of a lean team, its meaning and defining traits, how such teams function, and strategies for forming highly effective teams.

Understanding Lean Teams

In your pursuit of operational excellence, understanding the essentials of a lean team sets the stage for continuous improvement and waste minimization in your organization.

What Is a Lean Team?

A lean team is a streamlined group of individuals working together to maximize efficiency and minimize waste in achieving specific work or project objectives. It is characterized by its sharp focus on value creation and intent to optimize processes. Your goal is to craft an agile team structure free from unnecessary complexities. By establishing systems that encourage sustainable growth, a lean team is always equipped to achieve and surpass objectives using fewer resources.

Core Principles of Lean Teams

The core principles of lean teams pivot on eliminating inefficiency and fostering a dynamic, collaborative environment.

Value Definition

Clearly understand customer value to ensure every task aligns with their needs.

Lean teaches that a product's value should be determined by its end consumer. However, in many companies, there is internal disagreement about "value."

Often, 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 five principles of Lean management 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.

Waste Elimination

Streamline processes by removing non-value-adding activities.

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. Your front-line employees 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 value delivery processes. Therefore, it is a good idea to do such activities collectively or at least put any potential changes up for discussion before implementing them.

Continuous Flow

Aim for a workflow with minimal bottlenecks and interruptions.

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

Introducing techniques like workflow automation to streamline functions and reduce redundancies and a kanban system to visualize the workflow and identify bottlenecks will help improve work sequencing and create flow.

Empowerment and Respect for People

Engage and respect team members' contributions, promoting a culture of collective problem-solving.

At the heart of instilling Lean values and growing a lean team is leading with respect for the people. "Respect for people" is a management philosophy built on five 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.
  • Respect for People's Limits: Consider people’s physical, mental, and emotional limits. This will prevent overburdening the team members and avoid a decrease in motivation and productivity.

Taking these principles to heart is what makes lean teams overcome common pitfalls in traditional management setups and allow them to uncover the full potential of every team member.

How to Build an Efficient Lean Team?

Building an efficient lean team is crucial for the success of any organization aiming to maximize value while minimizing waste. Here are several tips on how to assemble and nurture a team that embodies the principles of lean methodology:

1. Start with a Clear Vision and Objectives: Before you assemble your team, have a clear understanding of what you aim to achieve. Communicate your vision and objectives to every team member so that everyone is aligned and moving in the same direction.

2. Aim for Culture Fit and Adaptability: When building a lean team, find individuals who are not just skilled but also adaptable and open to change. They should fit well with the lean culture of continuous improvement and be willing to challenge the status quo.

3. Promote Cross-Functionality: Encourage the development of cross-functional skills within your team. This approach ensures that team members can cover for each other and maintain productivity even when someone is absent. It also fosters innovation as team members bring different perspectives to problem-solving.

4. Implement Continuous Learning: Invest in continuous education and training. A lean team should always be learning new ways to improve processes and efficiency. This can be done through formal training, workshops, or even regular knowledge-sharing sessions within the team.

5. Foster Open Communication: Create an environment where open and honest communication is the norm. Team members should be comfortable sharing ideas and feedback without fear of criticism. This transparency is essential for identifying areas for improvement and solving problems quickly.

6. Empower Team Members: Give team members the authority to make decisions regarding their work. Empowerment leads to increased accountability and ownership, which in turn drives team members to seek out ways to improve their work processes.

7. Define Lean Key Performance Indicators (KPIs): Define clear metrics that reflect your team's lean objectives. These lean KPIs should measure aspects such as cycle time, customer value, and waste reduction. Review these metrics regularly to track progress and identify areas for further improvement.

8. Embrace Iterative Work Management: Adopt an iterative approach to project management, breaking it down into smaller, manageable parts. This allows the team to make continuous improvements and adapt quickly to changes without being bogged down by large, unwieldy tasks.

lean principles

Managing Lean Teams with Coaching Kata

Another useful Lean practice for managing a team is the Coaching Kata. In this system, 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 subordinate's success.

The Coaching Kata is based on 7 key questions. These questions can be asked during a daily stand-up in front of the work management 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.

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.

Continuously Learning Teams

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 constantly refining your processes to remove waste and add value and establishing a team of individuals eager to improve their performance.

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



Alex Novkov

Alex Novkov

Content Lead

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