I was recently asked if I was aware of any research on the advantages of hiring people with a “Lean mindset” vs. those with specific industry experience. My response was, regretfully, that I did not know of any documented research. I was then asked, would I prefer that my company hire people with a “Lean mindset” (which I took as an aptitude for problem solving in the spirit of continuous improvement and displaying a respect-for-people mentality), or would I prefer industry experience? That, I could answer.

Lean is a simple concept, yet it can be difficult for management to fully grasp. It requires a significant change in patterns of thought. As Albert Einstein once said, “The world we have created is a product of our thinking; it cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” Thus, to truly adopt Lean, an organization needs to change its whole way of thinking.

To accomplish this goal, an organization often has to change the way it hires individuals. While industry experience is hard to replace, it also can be full of old, bad habits. As a practitioner, I have found that a person with a strong Lean background is usually able to pick up on industry techniques much faster than a person with extensive industry background can pick up Lean techniques. I came to manufacturing from sales but was lucky enough to fall into an organization that was already driving continuous improvement. I discovered that my personality and habits, formed back before I entered the workforce, already matched nicely with the Lean mindset.

Today, I work for Wells Enterprises, makers of Blue Bunny ice cream. I came in knowing nothing about producing ice cream, or even continuous flow production. However, I am able to provide value to the organization because I can quickly understand the basics of the business.

Some of my past employers also have started seeking candidates with Lean experience – not simply for manufacturing jobs, but also for positions in quality, safety, engineering and sales. They recognized that the culture of the organization would not change (or at least not as quickly) without bringing in that new pattern of thought. Today, hiring candidates with Lean experience is easier than ever before. There are numerous individuals, both currently employed (but often unhappy) and unemployed (due to economic issues), who have a Lean mindset.

Now, I must add this: Not all Lean experience you see on a résumé is reflective of a Lean mindset. At one company, I remember when a high-level employee was brought on board. The résumé had all the buzzwords: Lean, Six Sigma, Kaizen. When the person got settled into the position, it was quickly discovered that the résumé may have been customized to the specific desires of the hiring company. It turned out that the employee had a significant absence of true Lean understanding. This is not an uncommon occurrence – someone does the work, someone else claims to have led the initiative. That person’s résumé looks great and provides mobility.

Hiring organizations must be able to ask the right questions and seek the right demonstration that a job applicant really has the Lean understanding for which they are looking. Many people think that they know Lean simply because they participated in a few Kaizen events. In worse cases, people worked in organizations where Lean was going on around them, so they think they know what it is.

Is hiring really important? Does the mindset really matter? Perhaps Walt Disney can help answer these questions: “You can dream, create, design and build the most wonderful place in the world, but it requires people to make the dream a reality.”

Which people do you think can turn dreams into reality?

About the Author