Going Lean in a Union Environment

One potential “Barrier to Lean” that we address in our latest video series is unions. Let me be clear, Unions are not a “barrier”, they simply present a different set of challenges and opportunities that need to be addressed. If included in the process, labor can be a fantastic asset for any Lean efforts.


It is important to remember that the goal of organized labor is safer and better working conditions. An authentic Lean effort is aimed at achieving those very goals. By empowering workers to solve problems and improve their operations, you are giving union members the ability to remove safety hazards and accomplish more with less effort.


One of the central functions of a modern union is contract negotiations. Often, job tasks and responsibilities are explicitly spelled out in the contracts between labor and management, which can make it difficult to streamline processes and rearrange work flows.

Furthermore, there may be concerns that if issues like job descriptions and responsibilities can be changed as part of a Lean effort, than issues of pay and benefits can also be altered. This can create serious anxiety in the workplace that will be counterproductive to any reforms.


The key to resolving these issues and moving forward with unions as allies is trust. Without trust, union members will be concerned that they might be improving themselves out of a job and there will be power struggles as the Lean efforts move forward.

To build trust, it is important to involve union representation early and often, in Lean discussions. Reserve a seat at the table for union members, reach out to their leadership and provide frequent and honest communication about what the Lean effort will look like. By bringing the union representation in early and at each stage, you will build trust. They will know how things are unfolding and have a say as to ways to avoid legal complications with contracts.


Remember, unions represent your ground floor workers, the people you most need to enlist in your improvement efforts. With their support, you can take that to the workers as a seal of approval, that Lean is something to be embraced, not feared.

Also, unions have access to methods of communication outside the traditional workplace. They can share information about the Lean efforts through their newsletters, emails and meetings. Sometimes the same message will be better received from a different source.


Some Lean thinkers and union representatives see each other as opposition but it does not have to be that way. The true meaning of Kaizen is to enlist everyone’s creativity towards continuous improvement and in that frame, there are no enemies or opposition. You can make the interactions between your Lean implementers and unions a success through open communication and involvement.

To learn more about unions, Lean and overcoming barriers, check out our series titled, “Barriers to Lean”.

June 25, 2015

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