Lean Leaders Are Everywhere – If You Make It So

The first article of this series discussed how many Lean initiatives either fail outright or fail to deliver as planned. Furthermore, that article went on to attribute these shortcomings to four cultural factors. This article explores the second of these cultural factors: Lean Leadership. We will focus on why leadership is critical and highlight the qualities that distinguish Lean Leadership from leadership in general.

Recall, from last month’s article, that the desired outcome of management is dramatically different from the desired outcome of leadership. Management’s objective is to produce and perpetuate a system that will create predictable and orderly outcomes on issues that are important to the business. Such outcomes include: on-time delivery, good quality, as well as being on budget. Predictability is the key. Lean leaders do that by using such Lean tools as job breakdown sheets, process management, visual management and standard work. On the other hand, the role of leadership is to produce change, often large dramatic change. Let’s explore how Lean Leaders do that at all levels in a Lean organization.

The Need for Leadership

Recall that:

  • To survive and prosper we must improve,
  • To improve we must change and
  • To change we need leaders to affect that change.

Because change occurs throughout a Lean organization, Lean Leadership is needed at all levels. But how does this work? How is leadership manifest throughout the organization, even at the floor level of a typical Lean manufacturing facility? How does the operator on the floor exhibit the three skills of leadership? (As a reminder, these skills are: 1) envisioning the future, 2) aligning people through communication and deeds and 3) motivating and inspiring others to action.

That’s easy enough to explain. If change is happening, someone is leading – because leadership is what it takes to create successful change. If an organization is changing, it is changing to something. That, in itself, creates a focus, a vision of the future. For the sake of argument, say a worker starts with a kaizen report. He may discuss that effort with others in his work cell and solicit their ideas and support. He also may discuss at his shift turnover with his shift replacement to reality-check his concept. In so doing, he is aligning the resources that are needed to make his “vision” a reality. Then, as he completes the Kaizen, gets any approvals that may be needed and others follow suit, he has in fact motivated the team into action. The tool he uses may be a kaizen and A3 or a simple suggestion – it really doesn’t matter. In a Lean facility, the floor worker has the tools, the authority and the empowerment to facilitate change in this manner, and in so doing, he is leading. A Lean organization cultivates this type of a culture so that changes can occur at all levels and consequently leadership can be manifest at all levels.

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Lean Leadership Requires New Skills

I read a lot in the literature about what it takes to be a Lean Leader and, quite frankly, I believe that most of it really addresses the weaknesses in leadership in general. Most of the advice has little to do with anything specifically related to Lean. Yet there are some skills that seem to be far less important in many leadership roles, but are absolutely critical if you want to be a Lean Leader. There are five skills that I have found to be particularly helpful.

1) The Lean Leader must be technically competent. They need not be technical experts, but they must understand the basics of the Lean strategies, tactics and skills. Does that mean the plant manager or division general manager needs to understand SMED? Absolutely! They need not be experts in SMED, but they must be SMED literate and SMED competent. There is no substitute for this. Even at the division general manager level, it is not practical to make just-in-time decisions if you do not have the requisite technical knowledge.

2) The Lean Leader must be present on the job site on a regular basis – he or she must go to the gemba. The leader must be present when things are going well and must be present at the problem sites as well. They must often be in the middle of the action – not to micro-manage, but to know the pulse of the place, the pulse of the problems and the pulse of the people. Lean Leadership is neither a long-distance event nor is it a spectator sport.

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3) Lean Leaders must not only be teachers, they must also preach and promote teaching at all levels. Lean Leaders make sure that all of their direct reports are good teachers. In classical leadership, the role of teaching is frequently delegated – not so with the Lean Leaders.

4) The Lean Leader is an excellent role model. He or she is a “do as I do” individual. For example, as a Lean Leader teaches 5S, you can count on his or her office space meeting standards. More than any Lean Leader trait, “walking the talk” is the one behavior that garners group support and respect from subordinates and peers alike. Conversely, it is the one trait that, if not practiced well and consistently, will quickly undermine a Lean implementation.

5) The Lean Leader must teach leadership. This is the real key to sustaining the gains. Teach them to keep a focus, teach them how to get their resources aligned and teach them how not to “de-motivate” their subordinates and peers and you will have gone a long way toward teaching leadership.

Everyone Can – And Should – Be a Lean Leader

In a Lean organization, Lean Leadership is practiced at all levels. It is not a “management thing” – it must be practiced by everyone. Lean organizations are built upon the concept of continuous improvement. Changes occur in all processes at all locations within a Lean organization. If an organization wishes to change, it needs the skill of leadership to properly execute the changes.

Furthermore, once Lean Leadership is taught and properly delegated, the “leadership footprint” in the company is enhanced: it is stronger, it is more obvious and it is also more pervasive. Consequently, when there are personnel changes anywhere, there is more leadership momentum within the organization. This action means an organization is less likely to lose all its gains simply because one charismatic leader just happens to leave. This expanded footprint concept is missed by many organizations, and hence their changes and improvements tend to have less staying power.

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So how do practitioners know if their culture contains the element of Lean Leadership? They need to go to the gemba and see for themselves. Are the leaders technically competent? Are they found on the floor when business is routine as well as in times of upset? Do they “walk the talk”? Are they good teachers, and, most importantly, do they teach Lean Leadership? These are all measurable behavioral traits. The presence of Lean Leadership at all levels throughout the company is a powerful tool to change a business, and to change a culture.

Comments 3

  1. Robert Simonis

    Another great article by Lonnie Wilson.

    Reminds me of a slogan from a sensei that told me “Leaders are teachers, teachers are leaders” another told me, referring to why a company went to the trouble to give tours and be open with other companies, even their competition, was “Teachers are always at the head of the class”

  2. Joe Walton

    Can we have too many leaders?

    I would suggest in a command and control environment too many leaders create confusion which results in little or no improvement/change. A single, strong, charismatic leader is what the history books record. It’s the vision most of us have of leader.

    However, in a participative environment you are probably correct – you can’t have too many leaders. Potential leaders are everywhere and have always been there. But our organizational notions left little room for them. Finally but very slowly we are encouraging these leaders to use their skills. Lonnie, thanks for pointing that out again.

  3. David

    To survive and prosper we must improve,
    To improve we must change and
    To change, we need leaders to affect that change.
    I question the usage of the word change. Change too many people means to do something different. Certainly there is a continuum of change efforts. Extreme changes are not always necessary. Sure, you may need process improvements, but this could be relatively minor in nature.

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