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Sunday, March 7, 2010

What does it take to be a Lean Manager?

During a recent plant visit I questioned the management style of the operations team.  You could say it was a traditional style of management of sort.  Unfortunately, they thought they could manage from the office.  This passive style left a lack of visibility on the shop floor and no sense of the condition at the Gemba.

It occurred to me that while transitioning from a traditional push factory to a leaner factory that some of the management was not changing.  Did they know how to change or even what management in a lean environment means?
Lean leadership is a fundamental element to creating and sustaining Lean Thinking in any organization.  To manage in a lean environment you must change your state of mind equal to that of the organization’s cultural transformation.  To change our mindset Mike Rother says we must focus on these 3 factors:

        1) Method - Specify the desired behavior pattern
        2) Practice - People repeatedly apply the method
        3) Coaching - Guide people in learning the method
“With practice, training, and above all method, we manage to increase our attention, our memory, our judgment and literally to become more intelligent thane we were before.” – Alfred Binet.

The Toyota Production System’s core management principles are articulated around the twin pillars of Continuous Improvement (relentless elimination of waste) and Respect for People (engagement in long term relationships based on continuous improvement and mutual trust).

In my experience I have learned that the single most important element for success in Lean is the human element.   First and foremost Lean managers have the critical role of motivating and engaging all people to work together toward a common goal. Management must define and explain what that goal is, share a path to achieve it, motivate people to take the journey with them, and assist them by removing obstacles.

I believe in the saying “people are the most important asset”, and, for that reason, management must have a shop-floor focus. Lean managers are taught that all value-added activities start on the shop floor; therefore the job of managers is to support the team members. Production team members will only appreciate management on the shop floor when they can see that they are out there to help them do their jobs, not as part of a command structure, bent on telling them what to do.

“Respect for People” is about building mutual trust and human development.  Lean managers must take responsibility for other people reaching the objectives they set.  They seek to develop and engage individuals through their contribution to team performance.

The Lean manager must be a problem solver, an essential skill in continuous improvement.  It is not necessarily about making decisions but more about encouraging and empowering your workforce to solve problems.  Lean managers embrace experimentation through scientific method of PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act).

Lean managers understand that not all countermeasures will be successful. This is part of Kaizen and they make failure acceptable in a way that encourages employees to continue resolving the problem with a new countermeasure.

Lean managers must be customer focused. They need to ensure that all team members and all departments realize their dual role: they are at once the customers of the previous operation and the suppliers to the next operation downstream.

The challenge of Lean managers is to lead as if they have no power.  In other words, shape the organization not through the power of will or dictate, but rather through example, through coaching and through understanding and helping others to achieve their goals.

Lean Leaders essentially have three basic responsibilities:
      1) Support operations
      2) Promote the system
      3) Lead change

The only place I know to do these is at the source or the Gemba where the actual work takes place.

Lean management is an art one should perfect with time and with the understanding about lean manufacturing. Lean leaders will be the most important asset to any organization in its lean journey.


  1. Good post. It's impressive how many managers try to run their plants via 'remote control'... (telephone, blackberry and email). Not going to Gemba and interacting with the processes and people (emphasis on people) will doom any manager's ability to promote the lean culture.

  2. Tim you are very right. I started out in the field of Agri-business and have been in or around it for most of my life. I was in fact lucky to have learned from someone who believed in being out on the floor, in fact he rarely ever sat in his office. By the way no supervisor even had an office, we had desks located next to the production lines.

    When problems occurred and they always do, we would discuss what happened right there on the spot and take corrective action. Most of the time we would ask operators what their opinion was and if they had any ideas to solve the problem. Surprisingly they often had some of the best ideas. He always welcomed suggestions from anyone on how to do things better, and made the rest of his management team do the same. In one year I remember a material handler suggested a diffrent way of bringing raw materials into the plant (it was a million dollar idea). I have also worked with the other extreme of managers that never leave an office.

    Well from my experience if you want to see your employees motivated and caring for your business, you have to: one be accessible to them (you have to get down to the shop floor regularly), two you have to respect them, three you have to show you care about them and their jobs, and lastly you have to be willing to listen to them. If you do those they will give you more than you could imagine possible including solutions to most problems, but most of all they will be loyal to you. It is amazing how much harder people work if they feel they are treated right by their bosses. But the reverse is even more true, if people feel mistreated and disresepected they will perform poorly regardless of their pay.

  3. George, Technology can be good when used to advance your methodology not replace it.

    Robert, thanks for sharing your experiences in context to being a good manager. People want to do a good job. It is a good lean manager's objective to push them to be the best they can possible be.