Lean Leadership in the Time of the Great Resignation

By: Felicity Pino, MS, MPA, Director of Performance Improvement at Children’s Mercy

Throughout 2021, more than 47.8 million American employees voluntarily left their jobs, an all-time record, and 12 million more than in 2020 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2022).  The year saw so many resignations that the trend became known as “the Great Resignation.”  Currently, nearly half of American employees are still considering leaving their jobs (Plan Beyond, 2022).

Why the Great Resignation?

Of course every employee has unique needs, but when we see a trend we ask the question, what do all the employees leaving employers have in common?  What needs might be going unmet, causing so many to quit?  Thomas Atchison, EdD, author and healthcare organization consultant, outlines the top three employee needs (Thomas Atchison, 2022):

These three needs are supported by the data on reasons for employees leaving.  A 2021 study (Sull et al, 2022) examined 170 cultural topics among 34 million employees who had already quit their jobs.  The study adjusted for industry variation and identified the top five cultural topics affiliated with employee attrition.  By far the strongest predictor of industry-adjusted attrition – 10.4 times more important than compensation in predicting turnover – was a toxic corporate culture. The authors defined a toxic corporate culture as workers feeling disrespected; a failure to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion; and unethical behavior. 

Another 2021 United States study (PlanBeyond, 2022) examined potential reasons for employees to quit by examining full-time workers who hadn’t yet quit.  Of the 1,019 employees participating, 42% (428) were considering leaving within 6 months.  The top three reasons listed as why the employees might quit were no appreciation or feeling undervalued (21%), bad supervisor (18%), and no freedom of expression (16%).  Other reasons included bad colleagues (11%), being young (10%), boring work (9%), no professional growth (6%), unfair compensation (6%), and inflexible work arrangements (3%).

In both these studies, lack of respect, appreciation, or feeling valued was considered one of the strongest predictors of leaving a job, which aligns directly with the top employee needs Atchison describes.  The good news is that, while an employee’s leader cannot control the pandemic nor the unique lifestyle needs of each individual employee, the leader can impact fulfillment of the top three employee needs.  In fact, lean leadership principles provide us a recipe to do just that.

What is Lean Leadership?

There are arguably several respected models of lean methodology.  One such model is the Shingo Model for Operational Excellence, which was created in the 1980’s based on behaviors of companies demonstrating superior performance and principles taught by the leaders – including Dr. W. Edwards Deming – behind those superior management systems (Stoecklein, 2014).  The Shingo Model offers Guiding Principles which outline lean leadership behaviors that drive superior results. 

At the heart of the Shingo Principles is Respect for Every Individual, which is listed first among the principles. This principle is well matched to the top employee need and antidotal to the top reason for employees who have quit or who are considering quitting.  The remaining principles build on and reinforce Respect.

Shingo Guiding Principles (, 2022)

What do lean leadership principles look like in the time of the Great Resignation?  What does successful application look like? Let’s take some of these principles and apply them. Here are some ideas to get you started. Please share any examples and ideas in the comments section below.

Leading with humility.  If a leader is seeking the input of an employee, setting a positive tone to hear issues reported by employees, and actively listening to the employee’s input, the employee will feel valued, respected, and energized!  The employee will be incentivized to freely give of talent in the future (, 2022), only perpetuating further improvements.  The leader will showcase a willingness to continue learning, which feeds a resilient environment better at adapting to change. 

  • First steps to try? Recognizing that others might have better ideas and asking others open-ended, curious questions are great first steps (Catalysis, 2021).  Also, establishing open lines of communication and opportunities for employees to share ideas (Christensen, 2021).

Focusing on process, rather than person. No doubt organizations are challenged with high volumes and, given the current statistics on resignation, shorter staffing…a stressful combination which highlights process inefficiencies and breeds the temptation to blame.  Redirecting the focus to the process, not the person, not only results in fixing broken processes but it avoids unproductive guilt and hurt feelings.

  • First steps to try? A simple practice for a leader to adopt is to replace “you” and “your” with “it” and “its,” especially when an error occurs.  Additionally, a daily management system can be used to ensure employees have the supplies they need, when they need them.  A leader can reflect – daily if possible – on “What did I do to help my team?  What did I do to hinder my team?” (Toussaint & Barnas, 2020).

Embracing scientific thinking, especially with process improvement efforts, reminds employees that they have the luxury to fail, and are indeed expected to fail at times.  This expectation creates a psychological safety around attempting continuous improvements and continuous learning.

  • First steps to try? Allow a team member to implement a creative idea following a Plan-Do-Study-Act or A3 process, using an objective metric (or two) to gauge success.  When processes are changed, frame the changes as experiments and demonstrate curiosity about the outcomes – good or bad.


Lean leadership principles guide us in creating an environment in which our employees thrive, are heard, respected, and forgiven for mistakes.  We as leaders cannot control the situation outside of the workplace, nor can we ensure employees will not leave, but every leader can impact the reasons employees choose to stay. 


  1. Bureau of Labor Statistics. March 10, 2022. Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey News Release – 2022 M01 Results. Available at
  2. Accessed April 30, 2022. The Great Resignation Research Report. Available at
  3. Thomas Atchison, EdD. December 22, 2021. “Reigniting Employee Engagement podcast” Healthcare Executive Podcast. Broadcast by the American College of Healthcare Executives. Available at
  4. Sull D, Sull C, and Zweig B. January 11, 2022. MIT Sloan Review. Toxic Culture Is Driving the Great Resignation. Available at
  5. Stoecklein M. 2014. Understanding and Application of Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge in Healthcare: Experiences of and Lessons Learned by the Healthcare Value Network’s “Acceleration & Assessment Team.” Available at
  6. org. Accessed April 30, 2022. Shingo Model.
  7. Catalysis, 2021. Dos and Don’ts of Leading with Humility. Available at
  8. Christensen N. September 13, 2021. Seven Leader Behaviors that Keep the Focus on Process. Available at
  9. Toussaint J and Barnas K. 2020. Becoming the Change: Leadership Behavior Strategies for Continuous Improvement in Healthcare.

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