Lean and happiness

FEATURE – Employee happiness leads to greater efficiency and higher quality, which is why it’s increasingly being adopted as an indicator by firms. But how does lean relate to happiness?

Words: Robson Gouveia, Director, Lean Institute Brasil

Are you a happy person? Here in Brazil, corruption, violence and increasing social inequality in the last four years have made us feel less and less happy. Not to mention the Covid-19 pandemic!

The World Happiness Report, which is prepared annually by the United Nations to assess the perception of happiness in 153 countries, revealed that Brazil ranked 32nd in 2020. In first place for the third year in a row was Finland, “the happiest in the world”, while Afghanistan ranked last for the first time. Countries with a high Human Development Index (HDI) were in the top positions – with the five Nordic nations (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden) in Top 10. Researchers believe that the high levels of trust in other people and in institutions is the reason behind this impressive performance.

The Gross National Happiness (GNH) was popularized in 2012 following a UN meeting in which GNH was recognized as a new paradigm for socioeconomic development. This concept was created by the king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, in 1972, as an alternative to the commonly used Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Traditional models of development are primarily focused on economic growth, whereas GNH is based on the idea that human society can only progress when spiritual development and material development happen simultaneously, complementing and reinforcing each other.


In remarks he gave at the end of 2020, the President of Toyota Motor Corporation, Akio Toyoda, reinforced the company’s commitment to “putting customers first” and to “putting people first”, with an aim to serve society as a whole. This mission statement is deeply rooted in Toyota’s values ​​and clearly explains how the company’s ethos – and its long-term sustainability strategy – is closely aligned with its Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

Toyota has declared that it wants to produce “mass happiness”, believing that mobility – in its different forms – can provide us with moments of intense happiness.

Talking about Toyota’s mission to produce happiness for all at the Toyota Motor Europe Kenshiki Forum 2020 (Europe being the continent where the world’s highest happiness rates are recorded), Yumi Otsuka, Vice-Chief of Sustainability at TMC, said: “As we transform from a car company to a mobility company, to produce mass happiness, we need to do more than cars, pickups, and trucks. We need to align ourselves with the Sustainable Development Goals, the Green Agreement, and a better future”.

Otsuka explained how Toyota’s experience and achievements provide a solid foundation for its future ambitions: developing technologies that can reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, making electric vehicles that can help stave off climate change, using new technologies and designs to achieve a goal of zero traffic fatalities, and working with ambitious and visionary partners to build Woven City, a hyper-connected and sustainable city of the future.

Toyota is bringing substantial change to the way it does business. Relying on its rich history and incredible expertise, it is adapting to lead in a changing world, not only by introducing new technologies – such as fuel cells and battery innovations – but also by contributing to society.

Each of the initiatives mentioned above represents another step towards making mass happiness, an unusual mission for a corporation but one that is already a source of pride for its executives. But what does it mean to strive to create “human happiness” or “mass happiness”? Let’s have a think about this.


Over the past few decades, organizations from all sectors have relied on Lean Thinking to transform their approach to management, to develop people, and to improve results. Interest in lean is still growing, new techniques and applications are being documented, and learning is getting faster and increasingly effective in many organizations.

As modern industrial society developed, more and more studies appeared on way people and companies organize their work, gradually replacing Taylorist and bureaucratic principles with new concepts. Lean Thinking stands out among these new methodologies and philosophies, as a socio-technical approach that seeks to optimize both the social and technical subsystems of an organizational system, of which man and technology are part.

This decade will be marked by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic (accelerating digitization, new means of consumption, new concerns and human needs), which makes our need to rethink our actions even more stringent. Following Toyota’s example, we need to put people at the heart of what we do.

To produce “mass happiness”, we need to make sure we are creating the living and working conditions under which people can be truly happy. For this, I think positive psychology can be of great help.

Positive psychology was created by Martin Seligman over two decades ago and has been spreading even since. It has a different goal than traditional psychology (which focuses on providing relief to human suffering), in that it aims to research, identify, and understand the healthy behaviors of a person and find a way to encourage others to adopt them. Positive psychology seeks to cause an “awakening” of the human thought, also called “flourishing”. It is a science based on three pillars.

Three pillars of positive psychology

People have always been behind the success of Toyota, which is where Lean Thinking was born. To develop people means to develop their capabilities, including their psychological and emotional ones. Since a lean system puts people center stage – it even talks about developing people before developing products – I wonder whether positive psychology can be another tool for people to tap into their potential, using the pursuit of happiness as a lever.There is a well-known expression in the lean world – “lean is about people”. If a business, like Toyota, needs to produce “mass happiness” through products and services that support people and society in a constant quest for their well-being, satisfaction, fulfilment, and the meaning of life, we cannot ignore the need to create an environment in which people are truly happy. By the way, this is also how lean can flourish.

Most people expect to have rich and rewarding experiences at work, but traditionally not everyone who wakes up on Monday morning is excited to go to work and give their all. According to a Gallup poll, only 27% of Brazilians are engaged in their work. Therefore, we can conclude that, without the engagement of truly happy people, we will not have products and services that can bring “mass happiness” about.

The positivity (or negativity) of the workplace can have a huge effect on a lean transformation. A culture of blame and of rejection of mistakes and problems, typical of traditional organizations, is characterized by what we’d consider “negativity” and carries the seeds of unhappiness at work and potential disastrous consequences for morale. Who pays for all this? The customers, who are penalized with bad products and services. Such negativity discourages people, generates fear, anxiety, and shame, ultimately preventing human potential to grow.

Conversely, lean thinkers consider problems as treasures – a much more positive attitude towards work. Talking about problems openly and transparently makes us less anxious and worried. Having support in problem solving makes us happier. Finding problems and having the right mechanism in place to solve them represent a path to “corporate happiness”, a tenet of the lean system.

Positive psychology awakens the creative potential of people, increasing their engagement and helping them to build a culture that leads to innovation by putting happiness at the heart of the work. That sounds very lean to me!

Lean combined with positive psychology, in this sense, can strengthen employee resilience in the face of difficult situations and help a company create products and services that truly “delight” customers (as Toyota would say), giving them moments of intense happiness.


Over time, the focus of psychologists has shifted from just looking at what makes individuals clinically ill to what makes them thrive. Similarly, organizational psychologists are increasingly studying what makes some individuals succeed at work.

In the context of positive psychology, “psychological capital” refers to a set of resources that individuals can tap into to help improve their chances to thrive on the job. These touch on some of the fundamental traits that professionals can display: will, which has to do with the motivation to achieve goals; realistic optimism, seen as confidence that the future will be positive; resilience, the ability to overcome adverse conditions and adapt; and self-confidence, which is the belief in one’s own abilities.

These emotional traits and behaviors are important for the lean professional of the future and for the success of the transformations many companies have already embarked upon. This is because happy employees perform better and are more productive, and because organizations that care for the wellbeing and happiness of their workforce evolve more easily than those that don’t. We have experiments in several sectors proving this.

That quality of life is directly linked to productivity at work is nothing new. A 2018 study by the University of California shed a light on this subject: the survey found that a happy worker is, on average, 31% more productive, three times more creative, and sells 37% more compared to others. In addition, they are motivated to better serve the customer, avoid accidents at work, and reduce waste.

When people are happy, feel safe and supported, they become more productive, make better use of their creativity, and are more likely to experiment, which are all elements that can make or break a lean transformation.

Happiness is about positive emotions, like trust and hope, which are very useful whenever we encounter obstacles. In business, tough projects and volatile markets give us headaches on a daily basis. Even in our lean transformations, obstacles need to be overcome all the time.

Feeling hopeful, trusting our colleagues and managers, and working in a positive environment help to ensure that difficult situations can be tackled more easily. In this sense, there exists a direct link between Lean Thinking and positive psychology. They both contribute to the advancement of companies. Arguably, we are living in one of the most challenging times of our lives. Therefore, there has never been a better time to use lean and positive psychology to change minds, attitudes, and habits.


Just like it once shifted from a loom manufacturer to a carmaker, Toyota is now trying to reinvent itself as a mobility company. Akio Toyoda’s challenge is to continue to rethink the company and keep it at the forefront of management thinking.

Toyota’s mission to provide mobility and produce happiness for all represents the reinforcement of a principle that has defined the Toyota Way since the beginning – the focus on people. In lean organizations, every activity is fundamentally aimed at the development of individuals and at the creation of a working environment that allows people to thrive.

Now more than ever, this has to be a lesson for traditional organizations around the world (and for lean organizations that might have forgotten what truly matters): our experiences while shopping at a supermarket, browsing a website, driving a vehicle, or being cared for at a hospital can all contribute to our happiness as human beings. The same goes for the time we spend at work. It is a company’s responsibility to make these experiences as positive and fulfilling as they can be, to ensure that happiness for customers and employees is more than just a utopian idea.


Robson Gouveia photograph

Robson Gouveia is Director at Lean Institute Brasil.