Humility, or What Does Dirt Have to Do with Lean?

dirt picThe word humility is derived from the Latin word for ground, humus. The notion of ground, earth or dirt makes sense in that humility is a virtue that keeps a person from reaching beyond himself or herself.

This virtue is a good thing and is especially appropriate in lean. In fact, humility is considered a lean principle. Within the Shingo Prize Transformation Model's "cultural enabler" dimension, it is paired with "respect for the individual." No surprise there because humility helps people recognize their creaturely equality with others.

Now, before someone says that humility isn't becoming of a lean leader, humility does not mean that someone cannot be strong, resolute and demanding. Humility does not mean self-abasement or timidity. No, not at all. No doormats here.

Humility is a necessary foundation for continuous improvement, because it is founded upon a recognition of the truth  about the self and, by extension, the organization. Here's a few humble observations of my own:

  • People who are not humble don't want to hear anything about their personal or their empire's  failures or "flat sides." Humble people see problems or shortcomings as opportunities and use them as feedstock for personal or organizational PDCA.
  • The proud often personalize issues,  "Hey, that idiot so and so, didn't..." Humble people tend to focus on the 5 why's rather than the 5 who's. They attack the process, not the person.
  • Those who are not humble often feel (or at least seek to appear) that they have nothing to learn. Humble folk embrace learning opportunities through experience and that which is shared by others. They return the favor by formally and informally mentoring others.
  • Proud leaders "know" what the problems are and the root causes and they prescribe the countermeasures. Humble people go the gemba and directly observe the situation, often with co-workers and, using appropriate rigor, let the data lead them. They practice kaizen in a participative manner and encourage people to experiment in order to learn and to elevate the improvements.
  • Proud leaders dictate breakthrough objectives, strategic initiatives and the means to achieve the objectives. Humble leaders do not abrogate their responsibility for the outputs, but they use catchball to build consensus and ownership within the team and they use it to identify better, more pragmatic approaches.

I know that I've only scratched the surface. Nevertheless, the point here is that humility is critical to lean transformation success. Any organization that lacks this key principle lacks, whether purposefully or accidentally, truth...and that's a tough place to start when you're looking for improvement.

So, what are your thoughts?

Related post: Everyone Is Special, But Lean Principles Are Universal!

There are 8 Comments

markrhamel's picture

Hi Jerry,

Thanks for the comment - thought provoking question. I think the subject and essence of humility transcends pretty much all subjects.

Best regards,

Jerry Foster's picture

Great perspective on humility, not just for Lean, but in general.

What self important person would we point to for our children to mimic?
Best regards,

Tom Fairbank's picture


I'm always amazed at how many organizations claim their lean but completely miss the boat on the "human" side of transforming the business. Humility is just one characteristic of the enlightened leader.

Great website.


markrhamel's picture

Hi Tom,

Thanks for the comment and the kind words! I agree, there are a lot of leaders who miss the boat (heck, they miss the ocean as well) when it comes to the human side. While the technical (acting our way into a new way of thinking and doing) is critical, it must be balanced with the soft side. People who feel that their leaders do not respect them are typically less engaged and less willing to take the risk associated with change.

Best regards,

Ron Pereira's picture

"...With humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself" (Philippians 2:3).

markrhamel's picture

Hey Ron,

Yes, Paul of Tarsus (one of my favorite sensei) got it right! Talk about transformations...

Best regards,

Dale Savage's picture

Most people think that humility will lower their follower's opinion of them. However, the opposite tends to be true. Humility builds confidence because a humble person does not hide behind a mask, trying to portray something that is not there. When we are working on an improvement project, we must be humble enough to recognize if our ideas are not working out as we thought they would which provides a learning opportunity. A proud person will never acknowledge a "mistake" but will cover it up or shift the blame to someone else. That, in turn, prevents the establishment of confidence in that person.

Here's an interesting sideline, at least from my perspective. Two foundational principles of the Amish are humility of mind and stewardship of the earth. Maybe there is more to that connection than at first appears.

markrhamel's picture

Hi Dale,

Thanks for the comment! It may seem counterintuitive, but it takes courage to be humble.

I think that your observation of the Amish principles and behavior have a lot of merit.

Best regards,