The lean mindset, Part 1

I have been helping companies transform to the Lean Business Model for 30 years. Before that, I thought of myself as a creative and innovative engineer. Among the words of wisdom that I share with people during training sessions is, “There isn’t anything that can’t be done, there are only those things that we have yet to do.” Does that sound like a person with a growth mindset? Are you familiar with the concept of growth mindset versus fixed mindset? I wasn’t either until I became educated by a seeming unlikely source.

Nathan Baily is attributed with coining the proverb, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Divers Proverbs with their Explications and Illustrations states that he coined the phrase in 1721. I don’t know if Nathan coined it or not, but I have always believed that there is some truth in it. Now it sounds like I have a fixed mindset because I believe that there are things that I can’t learn to do. Are you confused yet? Hang in there; this will all come together in a lean context.

Youthful lean advocate

On a recent visit to Hunter Trim and Cabinets, I was exposed to the concept of growth versus fixed mindsets. The unlikely source that I mentioned was Dustin Hunter’s daughter, Hannah. With her knowledge of new and innovative thinking, it might be assumed that Hannah is a college student or a professional working on her Ph.D., but neither is the case. Hannah is a student at Young Elementary in Decatur, Texas. She is 6 years old. According to her mother, Molly, Hannah is not only learning about the concepts, but she can identify examples of growth and fixed mindsets in the world around her. Now Dustin can practice lean thinking techniques 24/7. I bet he’s thrilled.

Well, I might be an old dog with a fixed mindset sometimes, but hearing about Hannah’s experience flipped the switch to a growth mindset mode and I had to learn more. I haven’t become an expert on the subject, but I found someone who is. Dr. Carol Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, is the go-to person on the subject. To gain a better understanding of the concept of growth and fixed mindsets I surfed through a variety of articles on the Internet. There is one in particular that I recommend you read and ponder. The article, authored by Dr. Dweck, appeared in Harvard Business Review January 13, 2016. It is titled, “What Having a ‘Growth Mindset’ Actually Means” at

Growth mindset

So, how compatible is lean thinking to a growth mindset? Dr. Dweck took her research, which had initially focused on students, to business and industrial environments. She summed up her findings as, “Individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others) have a growth mindset. They tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset (those who believe their talents are innate gifts). This is because they worry less about looking smart, and they put more energy into learning. When entire companies embrace a growth mindset, their employees report feeling far more empowered and committed; they also receive far greater organizational support for collaboration and innovation.”

Creating a collaborative work environment where employees are encouraged to take risks and to allow their innovative and creative juices to flow is the essence of lean. In that way, a growth mindset is indeed compatible with lean thinking.

More energy in learning

One thing I have discovered about why Hunter Trim and Cabinets (HTC) has been so successful in applying lean is their adherence to a point that Dr. Dweck made in her summary. That being, “…they put more energy into learning.” At HTC, learning is an integral part of what is considered continuous improvement. Their philosophy is that continuous improvement doesn’t always have to be about fixing something in the shop or office. Continuous improvement includes personal growth as well.

The workforce at HTC is multi-cultural. Some employees didn’t speak English, and Dustin didn’t speak Spanish. In each case, communication was hampered and sometimes instructions were simply lost in translation. Dustin knew that he couldn’t engage every employee in applying lean thinking with effective communication as a barrier. The solution? About two years ago HTC instituted second-language training. Every employee is becoming bi-lingual, including Dustin. I can’t describe how refreshing it was to be greeted in English by one of HTC’s long-time employees with whom I had been unable to communicate.

Learning at HTC includes watching training videos and successful applications of lean at other companies through YouTube. They are all in the process of studying and discussing “2-Second Lean,” a best-selling book by Paul Akers. If that book isn’t on your reading list, add it. Continuous learning stimulates a growth mindset.

Fear of failure

In preparing for this article, I did a little soul-searching. I challenged things that I had been afraid to do because I knew for certain that I would fail – fixed mindset thinking. A number of athletic events came to mind. One in particular that makes me uncomfortable to watch is the pole vault. I never attempted it because I didn’t think I was strong enough or coordinated enough. I was so fixed on failing that I lacked the courage to try. I watched some YouTube videos of pole vault failures. All of the athletes had one thing in common – they all got up, patched the cuts and bruises and tried it again. That is an example of growth mindset – never being afraid to fail.

The fear of failure is the beginning of the demise of a lean initiative. Leaders who are stuck in a fixed mindset convey that attitude to other employees when they don’t allow the staff to engage. Do your leaders possess a fixed or growth mindset? Study the concept and evaluate for yourself. A company cannot move forward with a fixed mindset leader.

This is such a fascinating subject that I am going to continue to develop it in the next article. Until then, focus on continuously improving not just on continuous improvement.


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About the author
Jim Lewis

Jim Lewis has worked in the furniture industry for 40 years with a special emphasis on facilitating the transformation process for businesses embracing the Lean Business Model.  Jim’s company, The Center for Lean Learning, is headquartered in Grand Rapids, MI, with an office in St. Thomas, ON, Canada.  He is a consultant, author, and writer.  Jim’s books include, “The Journey to Excellence – Successfully Applying Lean Thinking in Your Business,” “A Testament to Lean Thinking – Cases for Change,” and a series of ebooklets under the main title “Applying Lean Thinking.”  The books are in ebook format and are available through all major ebook retailers and through