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Lean in Lean Thinkers to Root Out Racial Inequity

by Christopher D. Chapman
July 7, 2020

Lean in Lean Thinkers to Root Out Racial Inequity

by Christopher D. Chapman
July 7, 2020 | Comments (13)

Like most Americans, including those in the continuous improvement community, I am heartbroken about the horrific murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minnesota. It is clear to me that this is a watershed moment for lean leaders to stand up against racial inequity and racist policies. It is no longer satisfactory to say, “Well, I am not a racist, so there is no problem in my organization.”

Ibram X. Kendi, the author of How to be an Antiracist, argues it’s not enough to say you’re not a racist. This self-proclamation is problematic because it signifies neutrality; that is, “I am not a racist, but I am also not aggressively against racism either.” As individuals, we either allow racial inequities to continue or confront the underlying racist policies head-on. With that in mind, I am proud to see the Lean Enterprise Institute (LEI) lean in toward the direction of directly addressing racial inequities. In a recent newsletter, LEI reminded readers that Mr. Floyd is the latest victim of hundreds of years of racial oppression, aptly recognizing that his death is so egregious that we can no longer remain silent. I agree with LEI that we must find a way to dismantle racism once and for all. Doing so requires fundamental changes in our society -- significant shifts in thinking across all industries, including law enforcement, healthcare, education, housing, manufacturing, and service, to name a few. Lean leaders have a crucial role to play. We have long practiced and taught clients Respect for People as the moral core of lean thinking. As LEI states, leading respectfully not only improves business results but also the lives of workers, their families, their community, and, ultimately, society.

The tragedy of George Floyd’s untimely murder informs us that there is still much work to do. This endeavor requires leaders to take the initiative and model appropriate next steps. In addition to decisive action and clear expectations, this will require self-reflection and, yes, vulnerability – a willingness to take risks and challenge the status quo. 

Leaders will need to do some soul searching and become comfortable with being uncomfortable to unearth the inequalities in their organizations. In its self-reflection, LEI acknowledges the need to deepen their understanding of how they contribute to the problem of racism and pledges to change their individual and corporate behavior. I invite other industry leaders to do this type of courageous introspection.

Might I also recommend pulling the change management tool humble inquiry from your kaizen toolbox? According to Edgar Schein, humble inquiry “derives from an attitude of interest and curiosity. It implies a desire to build a relationship that will lead to more open communication. It also implies that one makes oneself vulnerable and, thereby, arouses positive helping behavior in the other person.”

Dan Markovitz, a LEI faculty member, reminds us that traditional hierarchical workplaces create unbalanced power dynamics that work against this kind of humble interaction. For example, nurses struggle to voice concerns about patient safety to physicians. Software engineers have a difficult time talking about coding problems to their project manager. First-year lawyers cringe at the thought of pushing back against the firm’s partners. And tragically, in Minnesota, rookie police officers did not intervene while a fellow senior police officer murdered an African-American citizen.

Markovitz advises us that effective humble inquiry requires that we consciously break down the hierarchical barriers in our organizations. But breaking these barriers becomes more arduous when we also are dealing with racism in the workplace -- because racist practices are often not evident to those committing racist acts.

According to Dr. Robin DiAngelo, the author of White Fragility, most white people are uncomfortable talking about race and have a very limited minimal understanding of racism because they have not been trained to think about it in complex ways. Unfortunately, it benefits their self-interest not to do so. If racism operates in the background, then how we have always done things and the people who have always benefited get to continue without question. It seems natural.

Despite this lack of understanding, individuals and companies do not often seek out experts who have thought about race in a complex fashion; this needs to change. Dr. DiAngelo advises leaders not to be dismissive of these experts, but instead, to humbly acknowledge where they are unfamiliar, reflect further, and seek more information. This additional barrier, racial illiteracy, further prevents change agents from listening to or comprehending the perspectives of people of color and bridging cross-racial divides. Dr. DiAngelo asserts that the antidote to white fragility is on-going and life-long efforts. This work includes sustained engagement, humility, and education. She recommends beginning with:

  • Being willing to tolerate the discomfort associated with an honest appraisal and discussion of internalized superiority and racial privilege
  • Acknowledging a particular and limited perspective on race
  • Attempting to understand people’s racial realities through authentic interaction rather than through the media or unequal relationships
  • Taking action to address your own racism, the racism of others, and the racism embedded in your institutions

In this historic moment, I am reminded of what Governor Andrew Cuomo told New Yorkers during a press briefing in the face of another enormous crisis, the coronavirus outbreak. He essentially told them it would get better because they were strong, smart, resourceful, united, and tough. That also describes many of the lean thinkers I know from my continuous improvement journeys. Each of us has to answer to ourselves: On which side of history will I stand? What will I do?

Lean thinkers: We have plenty of experience using humble inquiry and other problem-solving tools to root-out non-valued-activities in our organizations. Now we need to add racism to the list of wastes to eradicate in our never-ending pursuit for perfection. Like LEI, I am committed to taking what I know about solving problems and applying it with vigor to the task at hand. Thank you, LEI, for leading by example, taking a moral stand, donating to a local social injustice organization, and committing to do more in the future. I hope all my brothers and sisters in the continuous improvement community will join us in this endeavor.


  1. Dan Markovitz, How NOT to Jump to Solutions When Facing A Problem, The Lean Post, June 4, 2020.
  2. Ibram X. Kendi, How to be an Antiracist, Penguin Random House LLC, 2019.
  3. Dr. Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism, Beacon Press, 2018.
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13 Comments | Post a Comment
Bob Emiliani July 07, 2020

Racism is a form of "behavioral waste" that I identified in my award-winning 1998 paper, "Lean Behaviors." See Table 1, "Bias/prejudice" https://bobemiliani.com/goodies/lb.pdf. Additionally, there is also a need to distinguish between racism in the practice of Lean management and racism in the business of Lean.

Reply »


I appreciate your comment.  I will take this opportunity to further define racism from an antiracist perspective.  Racism is a marriage of racist policies (i.e., written and unwritten laws, rules, procedures, processes, regulations, & guidelines that govern people, institutions, & communities) and racist ideas that produces and normalizes racial inequities (Kendi, 2019). #leaninleanthinkers 

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Bob Emiliani July 07, 2020

Yes, I agree. My point is that racism need to be addressed both in the practice of Lean management and in the business of Lean.

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3 People AGREE with this reply

Agreed.  Blacks and people of color are underreperesented in both areas. #leaninleanthinkers is a movement to help change that.  Thanks for joining the conversation and adding your perspective.  More voices of BIPOC need to be heard.

Mark Graban July 08, 2020
4 People AGREE with this comment

Thank you for your post, Chris.

I've recently read "White Fragility" and it was very eye-opening. It helped me realize that a lack of racist words and a lack of overtly racist actions doesn't mean there is not an underlying systemic problem that harms people of color.

People are socialized into racist thinking or they are socialized into "command and control" management systems in subtle ways. Once socialized into those systems, it's hard to describe that system, much as a goldfish wouldn't think to describe the water that surrounds them.

On the management side, nobody actively describes their management system as "command and control." Few want to admit that, but more importantly most leaders just don't notice that culture.

The only people who use that phrase are people, like Lean practitioners, who are fighting to change that system. The command and control system benefits some more than others... just as a racist culture does. When that system has benefited you, it's painful to realize that and it's not surprising that people would be defensive (hence the term "white fragility").

I share these thoughts, not as any sort of expert, but as somebody who is trying to learn and reflect. 

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Mark Graban July 08, 2020

Edit: I should have typed Christopher.

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2 People AGREE with this reply

No worries.  Chris is fine and preferred. Christopher is used for publishing and reserved for my mother when she really wants to get my attention... But seriously, I appreciate you adding your voice to this very important discussion.

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1 Person AGREES with this reply

Great point.  Your insight is exactly what is needed to begin reflecting on the current state of our various value streams from a fresh perspective, mindful of the complex racist policies that undermind organizations' efforts to maximize value.  We have to see the waste (racism) first, right?  And once we do, kaizen and transformation begins!   

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Craig B July 08, 2020
2 People AGREE with this comment

Great article Chris. Lean is a way of THINKING  that is learned and then practiced as a way of operating in our chosen field, industry, etc. Thanks for challenging the community of Lean Thinkers to take the opportunity to learn & practice anti-racism wherever we are.

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Mark Graban July 08, 2020
3 People AGREE with this reply

Yes, and what is Lean without "respect for people"? That means all people.

Former Alcoa CEO and Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill would say that all employees should be able to say "yes" to the following question:

"Am I  treated with dignity and respect every day by everyone I encounter without regard to my rank, my pay level, my educational attainment, my gender, my ethnicity, my nationality, my race or any other qualifier that you want to put in front of it?"

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4 People AGREE with this reply

Absolutely. I am reminded of what Maya Angelou taught, "When you know better, you do better." It's time to expand our Lean thinking and learn and practice a more diverse and inclusive way of operating.

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Deondra Wardelle July 18, 2020
2 People AGREE with this comment


I agree with you 100% on all observations and recommendations, thank you for sharing.  Respect for People is at the heart of what we teach and practice as lean practitioners.  Now more than ever there is a need to model this practice and the lean methodology inside and outside of the manufacturing walls.  Racism is a horrid waste that must be eliminated.

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MM August 19, 2020
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Christopher, Excellent article. Very insightful. You've put into words what I've been thinking of. Time is ripe to have crucial dialogue on what 'respect for people' and 'leading with humility' means. These two principles have meant a lot to me over the years, the fact that we can now have open conversations about it means that we can influence change for the broader good towards better diversity, inclusion and equity....

Agree that we can use the 'Leadership System'/tools and thinking to address this very important cause and work towards the shared value.

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