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Using the Logic of Lean Thinking to Combat Racism, Part 1 of 2

by Christopher D. Chapman
October 7, 2020

Using the Logic of Lean Thinking to Combat Racism, Part 1 of 2

by Christopher D. Chapman
October 7, 2020 | Comments (5)

This is the first of two articles exploring why and how to use the five principles of lean thinking to address systemic racism.


What should a Lean Thinker do about systemic racism? Corporate leaders are grappling with this question, too. Many seem to think the answer is to do more implicit bias training, diversity workshops, and only the most elementary aspects of the lean value, Respect for People. Systemic racism, a form of waste that has persevered for over 400 years in America, will require more than training and modeling the right behavior.

Instead of only firefighting individual workplace incidents of prejudice against or hostility toward people of color, we need to examine the big picture and focus on the system, or in lean vernacular, the Value Stream, to drive long-term transformation of the entire enterprise.

Be clear, systemic racism, or what Ibram X. Kendi, director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University, more aptly defines as racist policies, causes racial prejudice, discrimination, and Disrespect for People, not the other way around. Instead of only firefighting individual workplace incidents of prejudice against or hostility toward people of color, we need to examine the big picture and focus on the system, or in lean vernacular, the Value Stream, to drive long-term transformation of the entire enterprise. In other words, rather than trying to change the behavior of some people to fit the organization, we must focus on transforming our organizations to fit all people. To do this and create new anti-racist organizations, leaders need to fully embrace the five principles of lean: value vs. waste, value stream, flow, pull, and perfection.

Grasping the Current Situation

Before discussing these principles, let’s reflect on history to help us grasp the current situation. When doing so, an eerie feeling of déjà vu washes over me. I am reminded of Rodney King. Like so many are doing today, he also called for us to show respect for people and pleaded, “Can’t we just get along?” In 1991, America found itself in an all too familiar place of racial unrest triggered by police brutality. Then, instead of George Floyd, it was Rodney King, another unarmed Black man who regrettably became the poster child for systemic racism in America. Like the Floyd incident, this racist act was also captured on video (on a camcorder rather than a cell phone) by an eyewitness and televised for all to see. Rather than seeing a white police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd for 8 minutes and 46 seconds until he died, we watched Rodney King be brutally beaten by four white Los Angeles police officers who tasered, kicked, and clubbed him some 56 times in 81 seconds.

I was outraged, but as a freshman at Fayetteville State University (HBCU) at the time, I had no idea what I could do to make a difference. I thought the court would surely find these police officers guilty based on their inhumane treatment of a fellow human being and a gross lack of respect for people. So, I waited. Over one year passed, then came the verdict. Three police officers were acquitted, and the jury failed to reach a verdict on one charge for the fourth. Some people responded with protests. Others rioted to express their rage. I swallowed my feelings of despair regarding racism in America, remained on the sidelines of social justice, and continued my collegiate studies—very unlike what a Lean Thinker should do when seeing a form of waste, especially one this egregious and that puts people’s lives at risk.

Almost three decades after the Rodney King case, here we find ourselves again. Apparently, the grotesque nature of Mr. King’s brutal beating was not enough to motivate many of us, including me, to elevate the waste of systemic racism to the top of our priority lists. In the meantime, other racial protests and riots erupted due to police killings of more unarmed Black men in 2001 in Cincinnati, Ohio (Timothy Thomas); 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri (Michael Brown); 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland (Freddie Gray); and this year in Minneapolis, Minnesota (George Floyd).  

But this time feels different. I, along with many of you, feel compelled not to merely spectate from the sidelines, but instead, I must enter the arena, and do as John Lewis encouraged:

“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year; it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in GOOD TROUBLE, necessary trouble.”

Police brutality is the tip of the iceberg. It represents a much larger problem. That is, systems that are supposed to serve (and protect) all Americans are producing disparate outcomes for Black people. Why? Consider your underlying assumptions. Is there something innately wrong with Black people? Are they inferior to or less than? Of course not! Racist policies and ideas are at the root of racial inequities. For example, in healthcare, while Blacks represent approximately 13% of the population, they suffer 23% of all Covid-19 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Further disparities can be seen in the following statistics cited by Robin DiAngelo, the author of White Fragility (DiAngelo, 2018):  

  • The US Congress is 90% white,
  • US governors are 96% white, 
  • top military advisers are 100% white,
  • teachers are 82% white, and
  • full-time professors are 84% white.

DiAngelo describes these racist systems as a network of norms and actions in our culture and institutions that consistently advantage whites and disadvantage people of color.

Systemic problems require what Shigeo Shingo (considered one of the architects of the Toyota Production System) calls systemic thinking. In other words, think about the whole system and the interactions and relationships within the system. This is the logic of a Lean Thinker.

Tomorrow, I'll address specifically how you can apply the five principles of lean thinking to eliminate the waste of racism.


  1. Jonathan Bundy, As Companies try to Address Racism, a Generic Response is No Longer Enough, Fast Company, August 3, 2020
  2. Mark Graban, Podcast #378 – Christopher D. Chapman and Valeria Sinclair-Chapman, PhD on Lean, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Mark Graban’s Lean Blog, July 31, 2020
  3. Alex Berezow, Coronavirus: Covid Deaths in US by Age, Race, American Council on Science and Health, June 23, 2020
  4. Laura Morgan Roberts, Ella F. Washington, US Businesses Must Take Meaningful Action Against Racism, Harvard Business Review, June 1, 2020
  5. Pooja Jain-Link, Julia Taylor Kennedy, & Trudy Bourgeois, 5 Strategies for Creating an Inclusive Workplace, Harvard Business Review, January 13, 2020
  6. Time’s Up Guide to Equity and Inclusion During Crisis: Building an Anti-Racist Workplace, 2020 Time’s Up Foundation
  7. Ibram X. Kendi, How to be an Antiracist, Penguin Random House LLC, 2019
  8. Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility, Beacon Press, 2018
  9. Paul Gompers, Silpa Kovvali, The Other Diversity Dividend, Harvard Business Review, July-August 2018
  10. Joe Murli, Human Resources and Lean; It Really is about People, The Lean Post, March 8, 2018
  11. Vivian Hunt, Dennis Layton, & Sara Prince, Why Diversity Matters, McKinsey & Company, January 1, 2015
  12. Debby Irving, Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race, Elephant Room Press, 2014
  13. Jeffrey K. Liker & Gary L. Convis, The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership, The McGraw-Hill Companies, 2012
  14. Cedric Herring, Does Diversity Pay?: Race, Gender, and the Business Case for Diversity, American Sociological Review, 2009
  15. Jeffrey K. Liker, The Toyota Way: 14 Management Principles from the World’s Greatest Manufacturer, McGraw-Hill, 2004
  16. David A. Thomas, Robin J. Ely, Making Differences Matter: A New Paradigm for Managing Diversity, Harvard Business Review, September-October 1996
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5 Comments | Post a Comment
Benjamin Fishbeyn October 14, 2020
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Hello Christopher,

Very interesting how you managed to relate lean thinking to systemic racism. I would have never thought of racism as a type of waste, but it makes sense. Relatioships with employees, customers, suppliers, etc... should not be affected by racism. This wastes time and utilization of people skills. 

Just like you said, "we must focus on the big-picture and focus on the system." we do this in supply chain. Instead of changing habits of individuals in the workplace it is more efficient to change the habits of the enterprise. This will help with the long-term transformation.


Benji Fishbeyn

Reply »

Juha Ketola November 03, 2020
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Oh, please. No politics in LEI. This post doesn't belong here.

Reply »

Kevin Bartoy November 03, 2020
4 People AGREE with this reply

Let us be clear. This is not politics. This is waste of the worst kind. It also goes against the foundational principle of lean, Respect for People. To think this is politics is to embrace a dialogue of division that has flourished in the United States. Being "anti-racist" is not being political, it is being human. And, I can't wait until tomorrow's post to learn how being "anti-racist" is also lean! 

Our organization is currently working on a key goal to be an anti-racist organization and I hope that our embrace of a lean journey can help us on our new journey! 

Please keep this coming!

Reply »

MM November 06, 2020
3 People AGREE with this reply

This post is in no way discussing politics. I agree with Kevin's response. Respecting everyone should be the core principle of how we lead our lives... personal and professional.

Addressing these issues from a 'systemic' lens is what will provide for sustainable changes in organizations. I realize this is going to be uncomfortable for some but what good impactful change hasn't.

Christopher, another great insightful post.

Reply »

2 People AGREE with this reply

Kevin and MM, I appreciate your responses. Its great to see the main point that systemic racism is a form of waste resonated with you. This does require lean thinkers to expand their thinking about what types of problems/challenges we can solve using lean thinking and practices. After over 20 years of lean experimentation, I am convinced we can use this tried and true problem-solving methodology to address systemic racism and improve racial inequity in the workplace. Clearly some in the lean community believe such expansive thought “does not belong here.” However, in my experience that is exactly what is needed to change the status quo and transform business cultures and value streams. And Kevin good luck on your new anti-racist journey. You can rely on your lean tools and practices to help your team along the way. Please keep us posted on your progress and lessons learned. I would love to highlight it in an article.

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