The nine characteristics of high-performing lean teams

02 November 2015 4 min. read

High performing lean teams are characterised by nine key factors, according to a thesis by Management Consultant Desirée van Dun. Leadership and organisational culture play an extremely important role in bringing together all of these factors into the right formula for success.

Lean management has evolved over the years from a magic word to one of the most widely used techniques in the business world. Anno 2015, lean is in virtually every industry and used in the vast majority of organisations, either in whole (process management, project management, IT processes, software development) or parts of this method, as component of continuous improvement programmes.

Lean management

As a result of the growing importance of lean, academics and researchers have in recent years dived into the phenomenon to gain insights into the implementation of lean, its maturity, best practice and more. As was the case for Desirée van Dun, advisor at House of Performance and specialist in improving performance in the workplace. As part of her PhD at the University of Twente (the Netherlands), Van Dun investigated effective leadership and team dynamics in organisations that apply lean principles*. For her thesis, Van Dun conducted four different studies: a literature study, an observational study of six Lean middle managers, a questionnaire with 429 participants and team leaders from 25 lean teams**, and five case studies of well-performing lean teams. For three consecutive years, Van Dun followed five lean teams which were all well-performing at the start of the study. To study the teams, she used data collected through shadowing, video observation, (group) interviews, and questionnaires, and by collecting the teams’ objective performance metrics.

Her long-term research shows that well-performing lean teams have a specific team dynamic that consists of specific patterns of behaviours, feelings and thoughts. Van Dun: “As well as share information and conduct performance monitoring, team members must feel safe to express themselves and discuss disagreements. And they must also be involved in the organisation’s objectives. So it requires quite a bit!” In total, Van Dun identified nine factors that collectively provide a lean team culture.

Lean Team Culture

To get all of these aspects in line, efforts are required of both managers and the entire organisation. Critical for success are the importance of a clear organisational structure, consistent HR policies and sufficient time and resources to continuously improve. Lean teams also benefit from an organisation that operates on calm seas. “When there is unrest in the organisation that persists, for example from a round of reorganisation, then this will, in the long term, have a negative effect on lean team performance in the workplace,” says Van Dun.

Managers are required to stimulate the team dynamic by listening carefully to their employees and to clearly and consistently communicate the company strategy of continuous improvement. “Senior management plays a major role in the success of lean teams in the workplace. The developed lean leadership profile of specific behaviours and values can help HR professionals to enhance their selection, training and promotion methods, and thus the leadership within their organisations,” says Van Dun.

Based on the findings in her dissertation, Van Dun believes organisations can take their lean maturity to the next level. The return on investment from lean is sometimes not obvious, yet in many cases it leads to higher performance in the workplace. Lean leadership is one of the missing links, she believes. “To achieve continuous process improvement good collaboration between team members and their managers at different organisational levels is important,” she concludes.

Desiree van Dun

Desirée van Dun (Faculty of Behavioural, Management and Social Sciences, Institute for Innovation and Governance Studies) will defend her PhD on Friday, December 11th 2015 at 12:45 pm in building De Waaier, University of Twente (the Netherlands). Her research was supervised by Celeste Wilderom of the Department of Change Management and Organisational Behaviour.

* Lean is about continuously improving processes so that these add as much value as possible for the end customer.

** Lean teams are work floor departments, such as invoice processing teams and production teams who continually improve their own processes with lean methodologies.