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How to Be a Better Ally

Updated: Feb 23, 2021

I’ve been practicing Lean for over 20 years now, and have been almost solely dedicated to it for seven of those, so it’s reasonable to say that Lean takes up a fair bit of my headspace. Besides doing it professionally, I also read about it in my spare time, talk about it with friends at parties, and drive my wife nuts with it. Whenever we’re out somewhere, I usually bring up the process we’re currently in and how it could be improved.

One thing I hadn’t ever considered, though, was how Lean could help us to be better allies. As I thought about it and mulled it over, it really started to become clear to me how closely connected the two really are, especially from the Respect for People perspective.

Respect for People is a tenet of Lean and for me it means lots of things: Not wasting people’s time; not putting them into situations where they have to choose between following procedure or meeting a metric; and giving them feedback from a place of caring that is meant to build them up, not tear them down. When I think about how that translates to being a good ally, it ultimately means all the same things. There’s no contextual argument that makes it “not applicable.” To value Lean is to hold Respect for People paramount in all we do – not just when we’re talking about Lean.

My friend Kevin Hancock, CEO of Hancock Lumber, likes to ask this question: “What if everyone on earth felt trusted, respected, valued and heard? What might change?” To me, this is exactly what Respect for People means. Everyone – regardless of skin color, sexual orientation, background, upbringing or history – should advocate for adopting this mindset. We can’t claim to be Lean practitioners if we don’t. It’s really that simple.

Being an ally means understanding that not everyone is alike and not everyone thinks the same way. At its core, that’s what diversity is all about. For instance, when I think back over all the Value Stream Mapping events I’ve facilitated, some of the very best improvement ideas came from people who had never stepped foot in that particular department. They just listened to the problem and offered us their ideas based upon their thoughts, knowledge and experience. So, then, I have to wonder: Why wouldn’t we always want to surround ourselves with folks who have different ideas, different outlooks and different perspectives? Wouldn’t that seem to make sense? Wouldn’t that give us a much better chance at developing better, more thought-out ideas and ultimately better results?

Trusted. Respected. Valued. Heard.

As a middle-aged white man in the United States, there’s really not much that I fear. Sure, I worry about my wife and my kids, my business and my employees, but that’s not what I’m talking about. What I mean is that I have the privilege of being my authentic self, regardless of where I am. That’s not true for everyone, though. As an ally, it’s necessary to understand that what may seem benign to me may be really scary for someone else. I don’t have to think too much about what my appearance or my personality traits will make someone think about me. I get to be me for the most part, regardless of where I am or who I’m with. For others, though, these can be agonizing considerations. They want to express themselves, but they also don’t want to draw too much (or the wrong) attention. Maybe they want to wear their hair a certain way or dress a certain way, but they know they can’t for fear of being labeled and marginalized. Something that I don’t spend any time thinking about could be a monumental task for someone else.

We all see the world through our own eyes, our own filters and from our own perspectives. Our histories greatly influence us – how and where we grew up; the experiences that we had; what was happening around us. All of these things shape us into who we are, and alter how we perceive things. Respect for People means acknowledging these facts. Now, I’m not saying that we’re always going to agree (we aren’t), or that we’re always going to fully understand each other (we won’t), but we do have to remember what Respect for People is all about.

Part of what makes Lean so powerful can also help us become better allies. In Lean, one of our mantras is “the people doing the work know best.” In other words, the experts are the people who deal with the process,the equipment and the product day in and day out. Part of our job as Lean practitioners is to listen and understand what frustrations they encounter as they try to get their jobs done. It’s then our responsibility to help them amplify their voices to those who can remove the roadblocks. Being an ally is no different. As we seek to enact changes that eliminate racism and prejudice, we need to listen to what we’re being told by the people who deal with them every day and use our influence to help see that those changes get made.

Likewise, we need to be active participants. In Lean, we talk a lot about ensuring that we have investment from everyone - from top management to front-line support - because doing otherwise is a sure way to guarantee failure. We can’t make sustainable, positive changes to a process when those affected by the changes aren’t involved. Watching from the sidelines doesn't help anything happen. It takes deliberate, focused efforts.

In terms of being an ally, as Dr. Nita Mosby Tyler puts it, we need to “upstand,” not “bystand.” If we see something that doesn't meet expectations (call it the “Future State”), we need to speak up and point it out. It’s not always easy and it’s often uncomfortable. Yet, it’s necessary to ensure that forward progress is maintained. The more we do this, the more momentum we will gain, and the better our lives together will become now, and into the future.


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Paul W. Critchley is a recognized thought leader on employee engagement and continuous improvement, and has helped businesses around the world achieve greater levels of success

through the application of Lean techniques. A frequent speaker, he has keynoted at numerous corporate events, as well as at international conventions such as AME’s annual Lean conference and at OpEx Week. He’s also the host of “The New England Lean Podcast”, a weekly show that features management thought leaders, TED speakers, world-renowned authors and university professors. Paul is also a regular writer and contributor to publications such as Industry Week and Quality Magazines.

Paul is a former Board Member of the Northeast Region of AME, holds a B.S. in Mechanical

Engineering, a M.S. degree in Management and a M.S. in Organizational Leadership. He is a

proud supporter of CT’s “Skill up for Manufacturing” program.

He is passionate about Lean and creating organizational cultures that are sustainably engaged. He co-authored his first book - The Whole Professional, A Collection of Essays to Help You Achieve a Full and Satisfying Life to bring a fresh perspective on Work/Life Balance and how individuals and organizations can work together to achieve greater levels of attainment.

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Aric Ho
Aric Ho
Feb 22, 2021

"Why wouldn’t we always want to surround ourselves with folks who have different ideas, different outlooks and different perspectives?" So true, and for me, easier said than done. Different ideas and outlooks could present a threat to my own sense of being, or sense of the world. The etymology of "Compassion" means "to suffer with". And then, attempting to be a proactive ally knowing this? It's tough. And you're right, it takes deliberate, focused effort.

Thank you for sharing!

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