Lean Millennials: 5 Reasons Generation Y Might be the Kaizen Generation

Millennials (also known as Generation Y) are all over the internet; Not only are they some of the most active people in the online community, they also invented many of the ways people of all generations utilize online space (FYI Mark Zuckerberg is a millennial). It’s no wonder there are a plethora of articles trying to define this generation. For clarification, a “Millennial” is anyone born between 1980 and 2000. Just as they have been admired for their creativity and innovative use of technology, this generation (which now makes up a large chunk of the workforce) has also been criticized as lazy, entitled, and unrealistic. What does this mean for Lean implementers working with millennials on their team, or Lean implementers who are millennials themselves? Great opportunities! Here are 5 reasons Generation Y might be the Kaizen generation:

1. They feel entitled (That’s a good thing)

The word “entitled” might conjure up the image of a screaming, whining, Veruca Salt demanding a goose that lays golden eggs (or a trained squirrel for those of you more familiar with the Tim Burton adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). What does entitlement really mean though? It is the belief the one has the right to something. This isn’t a bad thing. Where would America be today without its Bill of Rights? Entitlement is only a problem if it’s unreasonable. So what do millennials typically feel entitled to? Flexible schedules? Creative opportunities? The chance to solve problems and reach their full potential? These are totally in line with the Kaizen philosophy’s respect for people and their work. Don’t fight it. Even if these are unrealistic expectations, when people feel deprived of an entitlement, they typically work hard to get it back. Use the expectations of your employees as expectations for the organization has a whole, and people will work hard for the organization’s success.

2. They’re not lazy. They just don’t like waste

Lean is not about working harder, or working faster. It’s about working smarter. How many times do people need to be reminded of this? Remember that whole “flexible schedule” thing we mentioned earlier? Isn’t that compatible with the Lean mindset? Why should you produce something when there’s no demand for it? Why fill your schedule with busy work that doesn’t add any value? Why close up shop at 5:00pm when you have people who would rather work the night shift? The laziest thing someone can do is to maintain an ineffective standard. Flexible means adaptable, and adaptability means Kaizen.

3. They can adapt to big changes

One of the defining characteristics of millennials is that they came of age just as the internet was redefining how people communicate, work, and socialize. In fact, they will be the last generation to remember life without email, smartphones, and online shopping. Needless to say, they got used to adapting to changing technology at an early age. The typical image of the millennial zoned out on their smartphone is a bit misleading. Someone born in the 80’s most likely didn’t have a mobile phone until high school or later. Smartphones didn’t really catch on until around 2005, so many millennials adopted this technology as adults, just like Gen. X and the Baby Boomers. Come to think of it, Gen. X’ers were using PDA’s and Blackberries a long time before that millennial icon the iPhone was released. The point is, we’re all trying to figure out how to use technology in a valuable way, and flexibly tech savvy millennials might be the perfect candidates for advancing Jidoka (Intelligent Automation). This also helps you create a more flexible workforce. Millennials are eager to acquire new skills and quickly devour knowledge through online learning.

4. They are learning to work with fewer recourses

If millennials started out with unreasonable expectations, then the result has been learning to be happy and thrive with less than they expected. Many millennial were just joining the workforce when the global recession hit in 2008. As a result, they learned the value of work, as they struggled to find it. Even those with decent employment often prefer bikes over cars, and small apartments over sprawling suburban homes (just look at the “tiny house” and “freegan” movements to see how thrifty millennials can be). This new economy, one that almost requires a Lean approach to succeed in business, is where millennial are getting their start. You might say they are Lean natives.

5. They are dedicated to solving problems

The environment, net-neutrality, gender equality, racial equality, and religious freedom are just a few of the issues that millennials are passionate about. They might come across as whiney to those who feel they grew up in more difficult times, but this doesn’t change the most important fact. When millennials see problems, they want to solve them. Wouldn’t you like to channel that energy into your daily operations? Give millennials a cause and they will rally for it. As stated previously, waste elimination, and Just-in-Time production are well aligned with typical millennial values.


With that said, even people who are hungry for change can be resistant to the unfamiliar, and millennials are particularly resistant to top down management techniques (good thing Lean management isn’t top down). If your have trouble spreading a Lean culture through the organization, remember to frame things in a way that will not only speak to the needs and desires of your employees, but also to their values. Make Lean part of their cause and let them rally for it.

August 3, 2015

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