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How to be Labour Lean?

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Kwok Hoe Choy | Today's Manager


With sharp focus on a process-driven approach, people capability-building, and total employee involvement, having a manpower-lean strategy can lay a strong foundation to build a value-creating and value-multiplying workforce.

Minister for Manpower, Mr Lim Swee Say mentioned in a speech at the Committee of Supply on April 8, 20161 of the need to move from high value-added to value-creation and eventually value-multiplication as the next wave powering Singapore’s GDP growth. With technology and global competition changing the nature of jobs and investments, manpower-led growth is also making way for manpower-lean growth.

An intuitive but misplaced idea of manpower-lean growth is that of a labour-reduction programme. We continuously emphasise this in the work we do. But perhaps a more relevant perspective of ‘lean’ is one which is used to describe Toyota’s business during the late 1980s by a research team headed by Dr Jim Womack at MIT’s International Motor Vehicle Program.2

In the view of the LEAN Enterprise Institute founded by Dr Womack, a LEAN organisation is one that creates processes that need less human effort, less space, less capital, and less time to make products and services at lower costs and with fewer defects compared with traditional business systems. This is done in a structured, systematic, and focussed approach to eliminate waste along entire value streams in the organisation.

Many organisations have used LEAN principles in their endeavour for efficiency and waste reduction. They include well-known global organisations across industries such as Nike, Caterpillar, Intel, Textron, Ford, and of course, the mother of LEAN manufacturing, Toyota. You may visit the LEAN Enterprise Institute’s case studies website4  for more examples of successful LEAN Management implementations from businesses that had solved real business problems under diverse conditions to drive manpower-lean growth.

A labour LEAN organisation does not start with a focus on reducing its workforce; it starts with LEAN thinking which entails purpose, processes, and people. To create a labour LEAN organisation, companies must:​

1.  Be clear and stay focussed on the sort of customer problems they will solve to achieve their own purpose of prospering. This is the company’s value-driven purpose. This purpose is then translated into relevant corporate aspirations, goals, and objectives. The key word here is ‘relevant’. While most companies will have a goal-setting process, LEAN management has a process for maintaining line-of-sight from purpose to aspirations to goals and objectives, across the organisation both big and small.

2.  Relentlessly focus on building reliable and repeatable processes that will deliver this purpose. How will the organisation assess each major value stream to ensure that all steps are valuable, capable, available, adequate, flexible, and linked by flow, pull, and leveling? This is the single most deceptive step in any LEAN transformation as most organisations are vertically built with a functional focus. LEAN thinking encourages companies to think horizontally with a customer focus with tools such as Value Stream Mapping and Value Stream Design, among others.

3.  The next key step is people capability. How can an organisation ensure that every important process has someone capable and responsible for evaluating that value stream in terms of business purpose and lean process? How can everyone touching the value stream be actively engaged in improving and operating it correctly? To sustain the LEAN transformation, two important support pillars must be in place.

4.  Management Systems. How will we know what is happening to our business or our operations? How will we know how well our people are doing in their work? How will we know the level of well-being of our employees? What management systems can the company define?

5.  Organisation Culture. How will a manager respond when an employees or team member has a problem or has made a mistake? What leadership, managerial, and team behaviours are expected for the organisation to meet its purpose?


In conclusion, it is important for us to be able to differentiate a manpower-lean strategy from a manpower-less strategy. Both may achieve the same results in the short-term, but a manpower-less strategy that uses less people without taking LEAN thinking into consideration, will over-tax employees — resulting in a disengaged workforce and other related issues. A manpower-lean strategy on the other hand focusses on reducing unnecessary work and wasteful practices — freeing up time for meaningful work that aligns with a company’s purpose and aspirations. With its sharp focus on a process-driven approach, people capability-building, and total employee involvement, having a manpower-lean strategy can then lay a strong foundation to build a value-creating and value-multiplying workforce.

1 Ministry of Manpower, April 8,2016, Speech by Mr Lim Swee Say, Minister for Manpower at the Committee of Supply 2016,

2 Lean Enterprise Institute, 2017, What is lean?

3 Top 10, June 12, 2014, Top 10: Lean manufacturing companies in the world, Global Manufacturing,

4 Marchwinski, C, May 16, 2014, Lean management examples from a variety of businesses, Lean management case studies,


Mr Kwok Hoe Choy is the founder and managing director of a consultancy firm. He has more than 30 years of practical, hands-on experience in leading, designing, and implementing learning solutions, people development programmes, organisation branding & employee engagement initiatives for multi-national corporations and SMEs across Asia. An associate trainer with SIM Professional Development, Mr Kwok draws from his deep practitioner experience to help organisations build high performing teams.


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