Lean Thinking Increased Innovation - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #019

Lean Thinking Increased Innovation

This is one of our free-to-access content pieces. To gain access to all Ideas for Leaders content please Log In Here or if you are not already a Subscriber then Subscribe Here.
Main Image
Main Image


Being Lean should not impact an organization’s innovative environment. In fact, freeing up resources can actually increase innovation. Lean thinking should be instilled in a company through leaders; however, middle-managers can also apply simple strategies to simulate creativity at all levels of the organization.


In this White Paper, the author looks at how organizations can free up necessary resources to pursue their overall business strategies. Identifying the ‘waste’ and ‘complexity’ in a company can free up people and space needed to do so, calling this process becoming ‘Lean.’

As we Lean the business, says the author, enthusiasm is generated, ideas start to surface, and we recognize that there are opportunities here we didn’t realize existed. Those opportunities were buried behind the time and effort required to manage the ‘stuff’ in the business no one cared about. The author gives the example of a number of companies that have successfully focused on leaning out what people did not want and essentially developing new business that really excited the market, citing Cirque du Soleil and Netflix as examples.

Furthermore, he proposes that ‘Lean’ and ‘innovation’, although odd bedfellows can work successfully together. Commenting on a recent survey done of top-level executives that asked what the largest barriers were to innovation in their companies, he highlights that their answers pointed to a short-term focus and a lack of resources. Lean addresses those issues.

The author also says that contrary to popular opinion, a post-recession environment may be one of the best times to pursue an innovative agenda. Applying Lean supports the resources requirement in a company and drives the right culture that facilitates innovation, regardless of the economy.


The author outlines three steps as the basic starting point for becoming Lean:

  1. Apply some basic Lean principles to identify the waste and complexity in the organization.
  2. Foster a creative culture. Build on the empowerment and enthusiasm generated by Lean. Balance efficiency with creativity.
  3. Fail early and often. One of the easiest ways for innovations to derail is failing to identify the target customer. Get models, prototypes, simulations and other demonstrations in their hands early to hone in on their sense of value.

The author also suggests avoiding being too tactical too early, without the proper supporting culture and executive enthusiasm behind it. It is only when organizations recognize this as a philosophy and way of life that is applicable in good times and in bad, and really understand it, that it sticks.

For middle managers, he admits that organizationally, Lean needs to come from the top; it needs to be part of the culture, and culture is driven by the behaviour of leadership. However, where this is new to a company and leadership hasn’t quite bought in yet, he advises a five stage 5xS strategy to exercise on the area around their department: Sort, Straighten, Shine, Standardize, and Sustain. 



Lean Innovation. Barry Cross. Queen’s Executive Development Centre White Paper (June 2008).

Ideas for Leaders is a free-to-access site. If you enjoy our content and find it valuable, please consider subscribing to our Developing Leaders Quarterly publication, this presents academic, business and consultant perspectives on leadership issues in a beautifully produced, small volume delivered to your desk four times a year.



Idea conceived

June 1, 2008

Idea posted

May 2013
challenge block
Can't find the Idea you are after?
Then 'Challenge Us' to source it.


For the less than the price of a coffee a week you can read over 650 summaries of research that cost universities over $1 billion to produce.

Use our Ideas to:

  • Catalyse conversations with mentors, mentees, peers and colleagues.
  • Keep program participants engaged with leadership thinking when they return to their workplace.
  • Create a common language amongst your colleagues on leadership and management practice
  • Keep up-to-date with the latest thought-leadership from the world’s leading business schools.
  • Drill-down on the original research or even contact the researchers directly

Speak to us on how else you can leverage this content to benefit your organization.