Planet Lean: The Official online magazine of the Lean Global Network
The value of gender equity to lean

The value of gender equity to lean

Cécile Roche, Maria-Pia Ignace and Monica Rossi
February 16, 2018

LEAN THINKING WOMEN – We speak with women lean leaders about the link between gender equity and the creation of value as well as the value of diversity to the global lean community.

Interviewees: Cécile Roche, Marie-Pia Ignace and Monica Rossi

Interviewer: Lex Schroeder

Gender equity is a timely topic of conversation in the business world, so we thought it would be interesting to approach it from a lean perspective.

Our first interviews are with three LGN colleagues from France and Italy. Cécile Roche is a member of Institute Lean France, author, and Lean Director of Thales Group. Marie-Pia Ignace is the President of Institute Lean France and a founding partner of Operae Partners. Monica Rossi is an Assistant Professor in the Industrial Engineering department at Politecnico di Milano who conducts action research on lean product and process development with Istituto Lean Management in Italy.

Lex Schroeder: What value, if any, does gender equity in the workplace hold for the potential of lean thinking and practice?

Cécile Roche: As it has been well observed by neurobiologists like Catherine Vidal, it is impossible to guess whether a brain belongs to a man or a woman. Yet, we know also that our education—and the constant pressure of society on women—leads to different behaviors in certain situations.

Regarding lean, I realized this the day an Industrial Director (a man) asked me if I knew a woman who was interested in being a lean champion in his unit. He explained to me that he observed how women have a different behavior on the floor. He said they are able to simultaneously be rigorous and listen to people. In fact, I observe that women have a relationship to power that is different. They are often less interested by the power on people, and more by the power for something.

Marie-Pia Ignace: It's hard to tell. Within the Toyota Production System's two pillars, jidoka and just-in-time, nothing is relevant to the topic of diversity. Even the foundations (5S, standardization, etc.) have no link at all with gender. In The Toyota Way – when it comes to concepts like problem-solving, going to the gemba, kaizen, respect, and teamwork – only “respect” may be linked to gender diversity.

On the other hand, “respect” in the lean community is often described to mean, “Make everyone succeed in their jobs,” which, again, has no immediate connotation with gender. To say it in simply: lean thinking never had any link with gender equity. But when we leave the theoretical field and look at what happens in practice, lean management promotes the emergence of leadership where it is. So it's a management environment where a woman can take charge of a problem, solve it through PDCA, and take ownership of the problem and the work when presenting it to a manager. If managers pay attention to who is leading the PDCA work, they may identify new women with potential. It's then up to [managers] to support these women in their careers.

Monica Rossi: It’s a bit controversial. The fact that we raise the point too much makes it a big point. What I want ideally is to live in a place where there isn’t even a need to talk about gender diversity because it’s not an issue. I think a lack of gender diversity is a consequence of the past. Twenty or thirty years ago, most women didn’t have jobs, so it’s almost normal – not fair, but normal – that companies are mainly populated by men. I understand how in manufacturing, and in more traditional lean applications, we see so many men. To become a leader in Toyota or an established organization, you need to be there 20+ years. Two decades ago, most women weren’t working, not just in the lean movement, but in general. An exception is perhaps hospitals, which is why we have many more women working on lean in healthcare. I don’t think it’s that lean thinking is not open to women; it’s more like lean thinking in traditional applications is a little attached to having more men in that environment.

This is why we see many women in the lean startup community. You don’t need to have 20+ years of experience as a CEO in a startup environment. For example, when I was in Myanmar, the businesses I worked with were fairly new and they were mainly led by women. I would blame society in general, not just the lean movement.

As for the value of diversity – it’s not just gender diversity that we need, but diversity in terms of culture, race, age, everything. In engineering, we call it a multi-functional team and do concurrent engineering. You want the most diverse team you can get. We know this brings different perspectives and creates more open minds so that the team is more able to find more comprehensive solutions… I wouldn’t like to hear someone speak at a conference only because they are a woman. And I wouldn’t want to be invited to speak just because I’m a woman (or not invited because I’m a woman!), but because I have something interesting or clever to say!

I have to say the lean community has been very open to me. I was recently in Turkey on stage with John Shook and was one of the few plenary speakers in front of 600 people. I gave talks at companies. Despite my age and gender, I’m invited to speak. I was co-host of the European Lean Summit, and I had the honor of introducing Jim Womack, Dan Jones, and John Shook. Ten years ago, I was reading their books! I see the lean movement open to change. If there is unfriendly behavior toward women, I think it’s because of the type of industry. In general, I think I’ve been subject to age discrimination more than gender discrimination.

LS: What effect, if any, do you believe having more women in leadership roles in organizations and institutions will have on the global lean community of practice? Why do you believe this? How do you know?

Cécile Roche: This is a very strong point: women leaders can be very helpful when managers need to change from command and control to a coaching mode. I have also observed that many women are very successful in logistics transformations (the accuracy of logistics is fundamental in lean manufacturing). Surprisingly (or not), I have known young women who were able to make a real transformation in logistics organizations with a lot of senior men, because they are more attentive to details and, at the same time, kind, patient, and aligned on the objectives. However, my experience in lean, and in all work situations, is that a good balance between men and women – and more widely, a real diversity across the board – always creates a guarantee of openness.

Marie-Pia Ignace: I think having more women in leadership would not have any specific impact on lean itself. Women will not find a different way to do the PDCA, for example. If you consider our lean movement, that’s different. The women managers and executives I know are bashing organizations led by men only. You can see it on Twitter, and it’s happening at the speed of light every day. This has practical consequences for us.

In LGN, we want to influence organizations and institutions, but in reality, this means influencing people, not structures. Lean is then in competition in people’s minds with other great trends, such as digital revolution or, at least in Europe, protecting the Earth. Why would a woman be open to or inspired by a movement led by men only? Let’s look at our institutes. How many have offered a keynote to a woman at a summit? How many have a woman on their executive team? How many have published a book written by a woman? If gender equity starts to become a goal for our movement, we can start there. Everyone within the lean movement has told me they are concerned about the gender issue, and there aren’t enough women speaking at summits.

Monica Rossi: For sure, I think we’ll have more women in leadership positions. It’s a normal evolution because society is changing, which I appreciate so much. I don’t know if having more women leaders in lean will change the community. I would like it to grow despite this. It’s a hard question because I don’t know if there is a correlation between engagement in the lean community and women leaders. We need to have hypotheses and test them!

Maybe we should compare industries where we see more women in leadership (healthcare or lean startup) with more traditional industries. I think the lean movement is evolving not just because of women, but because it’s becoming more fresh. Women in leadership, for sure, will bring diversity. Then I expect that diversity will bring more dynamicity, ease, and readiness for change.

I hope for a more dynamic lean movement that engages different kinds of people, environments, and contexts. I think this will lead to improvement in the lean movement. The world is evolving quickly so the lean movement cannot stay in traditional business only.

I see so much potential for lean. New technologies can appear and disappear so quickly, but lean sticks around forever. But lean thinking needs to be adaptable to new contexts and circumstances. My hope is that people of every background become more engaged so that they can use lean thinking to do something good for society and the environment.


Cecile Roche photograph
Cécile Roche is a member of Institute Lean France, author, and Lean Director of Thales Group
Marie-Pia Ignace photograph
Marie-Pia Ignace is a founding partner of Operae Partners
Monica Rossi photograph
Monica Rossi is an Assistant Professor in the Industrial Engineering department at Politecnico di Milano


Lex Schroeder is a writer, editor, and strategist. She is the Communications Lead at the Lean Global Network and a co-producer of the Entrepreneurial Feminist Forum

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