Lean Leaders - Don't Be So Judgmental

The term, "judgmental," in my experience is consistent with Merriam-Webster's second definition, "characterized by a tendency to judge harshly." Some synonyms include: carping, faultfinding, hypercritical, overcritical and rejective. Sounds like a party, right? Not, really.

For good reason, judgmental should NOT be a regular lean adjective. Why? At least two reasons.

Reason #1 - People. It's counter to the foundational lean principles of respect for every individual and leading with humility. When's the last time you witnessed someone being judgmental towards an inanimate object? Rarely. It's typically something that is directed to or at a person or persons. In a lean environment, the intent is to develop and engage folks, not shut them down. When we employ the five who's instead of the five why's, we risk driving the organization into a mode of problem-hiding, not problem-exposing and solving. Judgmental behavior drives fear and cynicism and freezes the flow of ideas, the very lifeblood of kaizen.

Reason #2 - Process. It violates, or at least distracts the practitioner from the principles of focusing on process and embracing scientific thinking. When the bluster of "judgmentalism" can trump or distort going to the gemba, conducting direct observation and relying on data (or, more appropriately as Taiichi Ohno insisted, first-hand "facts"), we become worse than blind. This kind of blindness harms an organization's PDCA effectiveness. That's one reason why time observation forms, spaghetti charts, standard work combination sheets, operator balance charts, process maps, value stream maps, etc. are focused on facts.

I'll leave you with some reflection questions. Admittedly, some are very specific. The purpose is to get you to think.

  • When you observe 9 pieces of work-in-process (WIP) within a line and standard WIP has yet to be established, do we ask, "Why is there so much WIP here?" or do we ask, "How come there are 9 pieces of WIP?"
  • When we observe a process in which an operator does a fair amount of walking, do we tell the team leader, "Man, operator B walks way too much," or do we say, "I observed operator B during process X, he walked about 300 feet during that process. What can we do about that?"
  • When you conduct a time observation of a worker for a certain process and then you share your findings with the team, do you say, "She was painfully slow when doing these 2 steps," or, while referencing the time observation form, do you explain the variation in cycle times, speak in quantifiable terms, note the factual points observed and let it be about the process?
  • When you listen in on a handful of customer service phone calls and there are consistent errors and omissions relative to standard work, do you dismiss the lot as a bunch of incompetent folks who obviously need some re-education or do you characterize (number, type, conditions, etc) the errors and omissions and share the anonymous (no need to name names) and non-judgmental observations with the team and engage in some PDCA?
  • When you visit another operation, whether one within your own company, supplier or benchmarking target, do you key in on the shortcomings and have a good laugh or do you observe the elements (large or small) from which you can learn and improve - noting (literally) the rigor of and adherence to standard work, the simple elegance of the heijunka box, the line stop escalation protocol, etc.?
  • Has anyone ever been judgmental to you regarding your area(s) of responsibility? How did it make you feel? Defensive? Engaged? Enraged? Did the exchange help identify specific actionable opportunities? Or, was it a fuzzy, dark cloud of, "you need to suck less"?
  • Can you think of how you can improve your approach in the future? Perhaps, be a bit less judgmental? I know I can.

Related posts: Want a Kaizen Culture? Take Your Vitamin C!, Book Review: How to Do Kaizen, Time Observations – without Rigor, It’s Just Industrial Tourism


There are 6 Comments

markrhamel's picture

Hi Chris,

Thanks for the comment. You're absolutely right.

I know that I have been on both ends of this one, neither of which was very fruitful.

Best regards,

markrhamel's picture

Hi Matt,

Thanks for the comment. I definitely had some self-introspection going on while I was writing the post. I know that I can do better.

Best regards,

John Hunter's picture

I think the problem with being "judgmental" often is about blaming people instead of focusing on the system that needs to be fixed. I don't have a problem with criticism of the system results (instead of ignoring problems).

I have seen, fairly often, people scared of being critical or judgmental just ignore problems instead of dealing with them. This is not good. The lack of being judgmental is not success. I think the problem is really on a focus on blaming people and the failure to address systemic fixes to actually improve.

markrhamel's picture

Hi John,

Thanks for the insightful comment.

Yes, judgmental does not mean the suspension of judgment. The notion here, as you point out, is to be rigorously fact-based, not attack people, and get to the root cause. Now, sometimes, the system is actually not the issue, it's simply a person's behavior (as in "I don't feel like following standard work.") Still the leader needs to understand, as best as he/she can the root cause, and deal appropriately...using good judgment.

Best regards,

Christian Paulsen's picture


Great post! I think we have all been on the receiving end of a judgmental boss. It's not fun and it's not motivating. Many people will crawl into a shell hoping to avoid further criticism and few will be more motivated with that king of feedback. The judgmental approach seems to imply that the problem would go away if we tried harder. Yet trying harder doesn't fix a flawed system.

Thanks for sharing.


Matt Wrye's picture

This is really hard at times for me. I have seen and been a part of some great lean implementations. So, when people don't come along as quickly as I would like I can get judgemental about them getting the lean concepts. That is not a good trait of a lean leader, but it is a gap that can cause damage and slow the lean implementation down.

Great post.