Lean Listening

image from Wikipedia

Lean transformations might be easier if we possessed some measure of the sixth sense – extrasensory perception (ESP).

Of course, (sort of) like in the 1999 psychological thriller film, The Sixth Sense, we might be inclined to whisper repeatedly that, “we see concrete heads.” You know, that lean euphemism for folks who obstinately resist good change.

But, I’m guessing that five senses are more than enough for effective lean living.

Let’s see, as characterized by Aristotle, there’s the sense of sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. Clearly, they are most powerful when working in concert.

That said, many lean practitioners are usually fixated on the first sense – sight.

We talk about eyes for waste, shiny eyes, direct observation, visual management, visual controls, and line of sight. We want the abnormal to be easily discernible…typically through drive-by visuals.

Yup, for good reason, we love the visual stuff.

Touch is clearly important around work and motion - selection, differentiation, orientation, etc. and for identification of abnormal conditions (i.e., excessive machine vibration, out of spec parts, feverish patients).

The sense of smell is often underrated.

Our olfactory senses are useful for detecting a host of abnormalities (not just smelly co-workers), especially when working with things like machinery (is there an electrical short or bearing issue?), curing cycles, reactions, or assessing the cleanliness of an area, etc.

Taste? Well, there must be some lean application somewhere. Any lean bakers, chefs, vinters, or brewers out there? Especially brewers.

This leaves us with the sense of hearing.

There are musical andons, buzzers, sirens, bells, etc. But there’s more, right?

Yes, how about the sound of an operation and its rhythm or lack thereof? Is it operating within a certain cadence? Is it running to takt? Is it not running? Is there idling?  Frequent starts and stops? Is the noise level uncomfortable?

How about when we get to the health of machinery, equipment, and people (as in harmony)?

Like a car, can we tell when it just doesn’t sound right?

Value stream analysis requires mapping the flow of material and information. The flow of information, or lack thereof, is often manifested in audible signals. What do they reveal? Where are the opportunities?

There’s more.

What about what your co-workers are saying? Can we pick up on the intentional and unintentional clues that our people regularly sprinkle within the spoken word?

These are clues that point to:

  • Unsurfaced or unaddressed improvement opportunities. There are a bunch of key words that can indicate that there is an improvement opportunity – “duplicated effort,” “tiresome,” “painful,” “boring,” “repeat,” “fix,” “complicated,” “confusing,” “only person ‘X’ can do it,” “again,” “still,” etc. The lean leader’s attentive ears for waste should pick up on these words and then launch into the 5 whys with the person who uttered the words.
  • Unmet challenges for critical thinking. Think of this as something initiated by someone who either wants their supervisor to: 1) give them an answer, 2) take the monkey (a.k.a. problem) on their back, or 3) leave them alone. The verbal cues include the, “So, then I should do [accompanied by silence and a plaintive look begging the supervisor to give the answer]?” or the explanation that they are meeting roadblocks, but seem committed or forced to keep doing the same thing (what’s the definition of insanity, again?). Good lean leaders will begin to attack this stuff with open-ended questions, such as, “Well, what do you think you should do?”, “What’s your strategy for attacking this?”, “Why would you think that?”, “How do you know?”, along with some good 5 whys.
  • Accountability gaps. Then there are the folks who love using vague words like “hope,” “think,” “try,” “keep,” mixed with other squishy non-commitment related words for when they hope, think, will try to do, keep doing, whatever they were talking about. For example, “I’ll keep trying that.” Huh??? Well, first of all, it sounds like there may be a problem, possibly accompanied by a lack of critical thinking. See above. Second of all, once we converge on the right plan of action, we’ve got to figure out when it will happen, what constitutes success, etc. Lean leaders facilitate and demand accountability.

While we must listen for such words, we must do so with the aid of our eyes to provide context and insight from the individual’s body language.

And, of course, we must be listening for what is NOT said. Again, this is a prime opportunity to strategically use open-ended questions like, “How do you feel about that?”, and “What do you see?” Once the words begin to flow, the lean leader can take it from there.

Just as we develop our eyes for waste, we must tune our ears for effective lean listening.


One last thing, according to Wikipedia, humans supposedly have at least five additional senses:  pain, balance, joint motion and acceleration, temperature differences, and direction.

I know I’ve had my share of lean-induced pain. But, as one man was wont to say (he was never at a loss for words), “Knowledge makes a bloody entrance.”

I’m hoping that in some strange calculus, I’m getting more knowledgeable every day.

Pass the band-aids.

Related posts: Book Review: How to Do Kaizen, Effective Visual Controls Are Self-Explaining, 6 Leadership Habits for Effective Tiered Meetings

There are 2 Comments

Mike K's picture

Some days you need a tourniquet.
He also wrote "A sense is what has the power of receiving into itself the sensible forms of things without the matter, in the way in which a piece of wax takes on the impress of a signet-ring without the iron or gold."... or in the way a stapler indents a concrete-head.

markrhamel's picture


Thanks for the comment and thanks for sharing some more Aristotelian thought.

Of course, no concrete-heads have been injured during the writing of this blog.

Best regards,