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Lean Thinking in Life Sciences: A Case for Enabling People


Fully understanding the construct of what it means to be lean can equip individual contributors, teams, and leaders to contribute to the fullest extent of their capabilities.

Faced with digital transformation, the life sciences industry continues to be challenged by the need to drive improvements to production, product availability and business processes to create additional value for customers. Through lean management, life science organizations are better positioned to respond with simplified processes that support high performance and agility in a business climate that presents constant change. Of the four lean management disciplines, the single most important discipline in preparing for the digital transformation is People. Through enabling people, an organization is empowered culturally and operationally to sustain growth in the marketplace. This distinguishes organizations who execute lean projects from lean organizations. Therefore, how can organizations equip individual contributors, teams and leaders to contribute to the fullest extent of their capabilities? The answer is embedded in fully understanding the construct of what it means to be lean and the competencies necessary to operate in a lean workforce.

Digital effect

When it comes to the life sciences industry, digital presents both a benefit and a challenge. On one hand, it provides the opportunity to improve operational efficiencies, expand customer reach and deliver products and services at greater speed (transformation). On the other hand, it forces organizations to step up or be pushed aside by companies who continuously and quickly adapt to the changing demands of the market and customer (disruption). The push towards greater availability of transformative and personalized medicines highlights the most insightful steps within the digital transformation journey: customer discovery. The level of data generated by shifting to a digitally engaged approach, supports the development of life changing, reliable and fresh patient experiences. Though digital transformation is enabled through technological innovation, it is accelerated through individuals and teams willing to adopt a lean mindset. This will continue to be a distinguishing factor for companies who succeed and fail in the years to come. 

Lean machine

The concept of lean management was born in manufacturing and built with principles applicable across industries. Lean thinking promotes an environment of increased value through continuous improvement efforts that require incremental and ongoing advances to services, products and processes. The principles of lean boil down to messages of holistic optimization, respect for people, speed, learning retention and elimination of waste. Respect for people is essential to recognizing the value individuals and teams bring to an organization. This recognition – along with a clear vision and appropriate tools – facilitates the construction of a culture designed to drive organization goals forward. 

Cultural construction

Respect for people also ties into the foundation for creating a lean culture. Many times the culture of an organization is evolving simultaneously as they ask leaders to lead teams towards embracing lean principles.  Because of this, leaders must learn to build collaborative bonds with employees and strategic partners to support the retention of high-performance employees and the ability to source materials and/or services critical to operations. Moreover, leaders must learn to facilitate customer relationship management to support the discovery of value-added insights that aid in the improvement of product and service availability and offerings. These types of relationships are not built overnight. Establishing a lean culture comes from the top, starts at the individual level, and grows through an organization’s teams. 

Building teams

There are several considerations to take into account when building a team to operate with a lean mindset. At the top of the equation are the leadership competencies required by anyone leading and managing people and the cultural framework to support leadership. The lean cultural transformation must be intentional, guided and tied to company practices. Applying lean management principles is never the same for each organization, project or leader. By creating a team environment with the appropriate foundation, it positions leaders to help teams shift, flex and mold as they collaborate to meet a shared goal for the customer. This foundation starts with how the leader demonstrates key interpersonal competencies when engaging with teams from the beginning of the lean journey. 

Leaders should rely on methods such as coaching, influencing, motivation, fostering curiosity and transparency to develop an environment where a deeper understanding of the work is shared to reinforce definitions of value, waste and efficiency. Coaching for example, is about creating trust and respect for each person in the paradigm. Both leader and teams are continuously sharing clear information about decisions, changes and ideas throughout the iterative process. In a lean environment, long feedback loops that follow hierarchy are discouraged and standardized real time insights are encouraged for the teams. This will allow information to be shared across the team that focus on the most viable outcome, product or service. 

Leading lean

Some leaders lead by directive and lean leaders lead by influence. In a lean environment, securing approval from the bottom of the organizational pyramid is as critical as securing sponsorship at the top of the pyramid. It empowers everyone to solve, create and innovate in a lean team as it is the masses that have greater access to the customer and perform the work in line with the organizational goals to improve outcomes. A lean leader should master how to engage teams with or without formal authority and develop each team members’ capabilities, all while applying lean principles to solve, create and innovate. Asking the right questions and understanding what motivates each team member helps the leader stretch the team’s ability to go beyond status quo. Fostering curiosity also supports an environment of learning through doing. Team members within a lean organization will instinctively ponder questions like: What does better look like? What else can I try? Is there a more efficient path? In a lean team there should never be the absence of curiosity. Leaders set the pace for curiosity by asking guiding questions and encouraging teams to try out new approaches and celebrating success stories.  


Lean is more difficult in practice than in thought and to realize the benefits adherent in lean–companies must be willing to make a change. Elimination of all non-value-added activity is synonymous with lean and will continue to serve as a driver of sustainability for companies of the future. Respect for people is also key to remaining viable. Leadership should learn how to guide with influence and coach with direction, to help shape an environment that motivates people and promotes growth for the company. Although individuals and teams can grow with the proper support, tools and guidance, whether we realize the full potential of both individuals and the organization depends on continuous application and reinforcement of a lean mindset. Fostering curiosity will help organizational members at all levels of the pyramid continue to move beyond ordinary to achieve organizational efficiencies and sustained growth. As it relates to the topic of digital, it will continue to evolve and in turn force life sciences organizations to evolve and accelerate the customer experience at a degree previously unattainable.

So, what does it mean to be lean? This means possessing a culture of continuous improvement and simplifying internal with the appropriate leadership in place to develop and grow lean competencies the vision, encourage curiosity, and agility to anticipate and respond to industry trends and personalized customer needs.

Wuraola Oladokun and Yvonne Ellis-Clarke are Management Consultants at Grant Thornton LLP.

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