Monday, June 27, 2011

The Role of a Lean Leader

My Friend Matt Wrye recently wrote about his role as an internal Lean consultant. He talked about the struggle some management places on Lean leaders between just doing it and influencing change. This got me thinking about my own experience, why this struggle occurs, and what the true role of a Lean leader should be.

Like Matt, I too have found myself in both types of roles. I believe this struggle with how the role is defined has a lot to do with the level of knowledge by management. So let me clarify by knowledge I mean true understand of Lean thinking as a business or management process that goes beyond improvement tools to capture employee development and engagement. I say management because it is often not just one person but a collection of managers that share a similar thinking and approach.

The level of involvement in Lean by the management team often shapes the role of the Lean leader. In my experience the less knowledgeable the management about REAL Lean (Bob Emiliani’s term) the more they think of it as a set of tools the more they want you to just do it. These are the managers that are usually hands-off with Lean and want to see the short term gains to demonstrate they are improving the process. They are focused on the results and outcomes and not the means by which we achieve them. This task oriented approach to management unfortunately is only sustainable while the doer is doing.

However those managers who truly know Lean understand the benefit comes from developing people to think and improve their own process the more they define the role as influencing or coaching. As Mike Rother said in Toyota Kata management must focus on how solutions are developed. Develop, via practice with coaching, the capability in people to develop new solutions. In this view the Lean leader can have the biggest impact coaching or influencing the process of improvement to capture the ingenuity of those in the organization.

In my experience being a coach is the most important aspect of a Lean leader. They are not the ones to come in and do it for you. They are the ones to show you how to do it with confidence so that you will be able to do it for yourself. A Lean leader must be relentless in teaching and expecting learning through actual practice.

The best analogy of a Lean leader that I have heard is related to agriculture. The Lean leader is a farmer not a hunter. Farmers take the long view, and win in the long term. Hunters take the short view, get early gains but ultimately die out. Farmers are shepherds and Lean leaders should do the same.

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  1. Great post, Tim. If we really want to spread what true lean is a couple of things have to happen. We have to not only become better coaches but educate on why coaching is important. A lot of people still don't see why coaching is important unless of course they are on an athletic field.

    Also, we have to celebrate lean behaviors even it they aren't calling it lean. They don't need to call it lean either. It is the behavior we want to reinforce, because that is what is important.

    Thanks for sharing, Tim.

  2. Well, Matt, you had the idea. I just elaborated on the points you framed out. I agree with you. We as a community need to do more to educate everyone on what real lean is. I see fake lean far too much. Coaching and thereby developing people is our most important mission and the means to achieve excellence.

  3. In my opinion Toyota is the model of lean. Their culture is driven and instilled from the executive leadership ranks throughout the company.

    There are no shortcuts to doing it right - eventually even a "doer" will get burned out and fall short in the long run. Since you mentioned Toyota Kata, it is clear that everyone, including leadership, are students.

    Toyota Under Fire and Toyota Kata should be requisite reading. Although everyone participates, the direction and support were provided by executive management.

    Thanks for sharing.

  4. Great post, Tim. The hunter-farmer analogy is fantastic. Most leaders would acknowledge that it's best for the business to have a long term outlook yet quarterly, monthly, and even weekly improvements in key metrics are expected. The improvements need to be sustainable. Sustainable results require time because it takes time to develop people as systems that can sustain the improved results.


  5. Hi Tim, another excellent post, thank you.
    I've had similar thoughts rumbling around the back of my mind for a little while and hadn't quite crytallised them. You've now done that very nicely for me, thank you.
    And the farmer / hunter analogy will help me in explaining it in simple terms to others (clients etc).