Monday, April 12, 2021

10 Qualities of Successful Lean Leaders



There is often a missing link in many Lean organizations - which is, the set of leadership structures and behaviors that constitute a lean management system. People frequently equate ‘Lean' with the tools used to standardize processes and generate efficiencies; and organizations tend to focus more on the implementation of these tools. However, implementing tools only accounts for, at most, 20% of the effort needed in lean transformations. The remaining 80% should be spent on changing leaders' behaviors and practices; and eventually their mindsets.

Lean leadership bridges a crucial divide: the gap between lean thinking and lean tools. Lean leaders have an essential role to play in lean transformations.

I have had the honor to witness several fine Lean leaders throughout my career, and would like to share with you my thoughts on the qualities which make them successful.

1. Focused on the Journey

Lean is a Journey. It is not a quick fix nor a Program of the Month. Far from being a mere operational tactic, Lean should be an integral part of the overall business strategy. Only after identifying ‘True North’ and a strong sense of purpose can an organization understand how to apply Lean to enhance performance through the increase of value. All of this requires long-term thinking, patience and a sustainability mindset.

Another key leadership behavior related to this quality is the ability to perform Hansei, Japanese for ‘reflection’, often referring to critical self-reflection. Only when we deeply reflect on our mistakes and opportunities can we attempt to move forward in our journey towards perfection.

2. Relentless Pursuit of Perfection

This quality is the very essence of Kaizen thinking. The absolute embracement of continuous improvement and utter rejection of the status quo. The Lean Leader believes that ‘good enough’ is never enough! Burning inside the heart and soul of every Lean Leader lies a fundamental belief that everything can be made better and that we must constantly strive to achieve perfection, knowing full well that pure perfection can never actually be obtained. A key leadership behavior to enable this trait is Insatiable Curiosity. In order to improve one must be curious about possibilities and alternatives, as well as embrace the key concept of ‘Learning, not Knowing’. The Lean Leader constantly strives to improve themselves, and thus their organization, and never thinks they know everything.

3. Process-Oriented Thinking

Lean leaders aren’t ones to demand positive results no matter the cost. In their case, the end doesn’t necessarily justify the means. Instead, lean leaders have the ability to take a step back and examine the processes that can lead to the right results.

In their mind, the right process will lead to the right results.

4. Customer Focus Obsessed

In Lean, the Customer is at the beginning and end of everything. Without an intense focus on the customer and an understanding of what they value, a leader will not know where to focus their improvement efforts and may actually end up inadvertently carving out value from the organization.

A key leadership behavior to support this quality is the ability to create a Problem Solving Culture – an environment where problems are readily surfaced (note the Toyota saying of "’No Problem’ is Problem!") and subsequently solved by the teams closest to where the work is being performed. Without a near-fanatical priority on customer value, the customer journey and a problem solving culture, it will be nearly impossible to meet or exceed the customer's expectations.

5. Tackle Problems Immediately (Stopping the Line)

When a problem arises, Lean leaders set the example for immediately tackling the problem before it grows. This is called “stopping the line,” a practice taken from Lean manufacturing, in which an assembly line would halt production to resolve an issue, no matter how small. This practice holds everyone on the assembly line (or value stream) accountable for delivering a consistently high-quality product.

Stopping the line forces every part of the organization to swarm to resolve an issue, learn why it happened, and prioritize work to ensure that it does not happen again. Continuous improvement cannot be one executive’s job; it should be the means by which decisions are made at the personal, team, and organizational levels.

6. Clear Expectations and Accountability

Communication is obviously key to this quality. Lean leaders clearly vocalize their needs. They establish sets of expectations for a particular task or project and don’t allow ambiguity to creep into their communications. Vague expectations can cause duplications in work, miscommunications or just generally waste people’s time while they scratch their heads trying to figure out their leader’s meaning.

Once lean leaders set those clear expectations, they then have no issue holding people accountable. They expect those around them to take ownership of their tasks and complete them within the allotted amount of time.

7. Going to the Gemba

Gemba is a Japanese word that means ‘workplace’, or in practical use ‘where value is created’. Leaders need to spend less time in the office or conference room and more time at the real touch points impacting the customer and the employees. Only then will they truly understand the real situation so that they can take effective actions to improve performance.

The Lean Leader manages by Gemba instead of managing by powerpoint by proactively scheduling ‘point of impact’ walks where they can actively engage with the people closest to the customer, instead of relying on 3rd party reports and only going to the workplace when there is a problem. Lean Leaders provide continual coaching at the Gemba versus giving orders from the office, fully exhibiting the critical behavior of active questioning and listening to constantly develop and challenge the minds of their people.

8. Knowing When To Lead and When To Follow

Part of being a lean leader is an ability to read situations well. If there is a vacuum and leadership is needed, a lean leader won’t have an issue stepping up and taking charge.

But then again, a lean leader also knows when it’s time to step back and allow others to lead. Putting leadership on a project or task in someone else’s capable hands is a important act of cultivating leadership qualities in colleagues.

9. Be Free With Praise But Also Be Honest

Lean leaders are respectful and dole out praise far more than they criticize. Correcting issues is obviously important for the learning process, but lean leaders should aim for a 5-to-1 praise to criticism ratio when addressing colleagues.

That being said, lean leaders always aim for honesty. Sugarcoating the truth doesn’t help anyone involved.

10. Practice What You Preach

The old adage “practice what you preach” is particularly important for lean leaders. Nobody is going to buy what you’re selling if you’re not living it yourself, whether that’s lean principles, continuous improvement or any other concept.

Yes, the Lean leader should obviously act a role model for others, but they should also teach leadership and encourage those qualities in those around them.

These 10 qualities are by no means exhaustive, but I believe they do capture many of the behaviors that we have come to associate with Lean Leadership. They are generally distinct from the general leadership qualities and should thus be considered ‘additional’ traits above and beyond the foundational ones. It is important to cultivate these leadership expectations by institutionalizing them in your practices for leader development. But most importantly, leaders must build a lean culture by themselves adhering to the principles of lean leadership on a daily basis, thus generating the repeatable behaviors in the organization that will result in a high level of performance.

Just as a Lean transformation cannot happen overnight, a Lean management transformation is not something that can be turned on with a switch. For many leaders, this requires abandoning many of the principles that have gotten them to where they are.


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Friday, April 9, 2021

Lean Quote: Excellence Over Perfection

On Fridays I will post a Lean related Quote. Throughout our lifetimes many people touch our lives and leave us with words of wisdom. These can both be a source of new learning and also a point to pause and reflect upon lessons we have learned. Within Lean active learning is an important aspect on this journey because without learning we can not improve.


"Perfection has to do with the end product, but excellence has to do with the process.  —  Jerry Moran

We must recognize that perfection and excellence is not the same thing. Perfectionism is about the fear of failure, while striving for excellence is the urge for success. Excellence is superior performance, persistence, and the commitment to do something exceptionally well. Excellence requires risk, effort, spontaneity, hard work, and extending yourself to reach your full potential. Perfectionism interrupts a natural curiosity to learn, inquire, and invent. It causes frustration, pressure, doubt, and constant self criticism.

When we strive for excellence, we have high standards. And in general, there’s nothing wrong with having high standards. In fact, it can be a good thing. High standards can encourage us to make improvements, solve problems and do quality work.

Perfectionism, however, is an impossibly high standard — with no room for imperfections and no compassion for mistakes.

People who strive for excellence can accept that mistakes are inevitable and value what they learn from them. They don’t let mistakes define them.

When we pursue excellence or high standards, we value the process, not just the outcome. We know that the learning that we build along the way, is often as important as the outcome. When we value the process, we are better equipped to weather life’s ups and downs because we know that the outcome isn’t always a reflection of our effort, skills, or intelligence.

Excellence is about focusing and improving the process – whatever it is to achieve the desired result or goal. The paradigm shift is about believing that once we continue excelling and improving at what we do well, the results would get better and better.


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Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Strengthening Your Communication Skills as a Leader

Image Source: pixabay.com

Most everyone knows that certain skills define those who make strong leaders. Somehow these people manage to bring people in line with their ideals, address differences, and create a productive workforce with minimal effort. Many of us are full of admiration for those who seem to naturally command this respect.

But what exactly is it that defines a great leader?

There are surely a lot of things that go into it. But perhaps one of the most essential aspects of a strong leader is communication skills. These leaders seem to have a natural ability to speak with people and meet them on their level.

As you work to become a strong leader within your company, building and strengthening communication skills is critical. Here are a few ways you can start.

Building Trust

There are few things more valuable to an employee than having a supervisor they trust to look out for their best interests. As a business leader, figuring out how to start building this trust amongst employees can be a real challenge. Once again, communication is a key component of doing this — and it is something you can work on strengthening while you grow as a manager.

One of the best ways to build trust with employees is to strive for transparency in all actions. This means being open with them and sharing the good news as well as the bad news. It also means working to make sure that employees are never caught off-guard by some of the big changes and new directives that may be coming down the pipe. Transparency is a commitment to being honest, even if it might make you feel more vulnerable — most employees recognize and appreciate that.

Employees who trust their managers to be straight with them about company concerns are more likely to find satisfaction in their jobs and feel like valued members of a team. In the long run, this communication strategy could greatly increase workplace happiness and productivity. Trust in a leader with good, transparent communication skills can also help employees and the company get through some of the most difficult times.

Listening Skills Matter

Another aspect of communication that good leaders continually work to strengthen is their listening skills. When most people think about working on communication, they think about the need to be better at talking or writing to people. But really, that’s only half of it — effectively communicating involves both speaking and listening — it's a two-way street.

Sitting back and listening to employee ideas, concerns, and questions can be a powerful means of moving the company forward in a positive direction. Actively listening by asking questions, getting more information, and thinking critically about the problems at hand can bring to light issues that need to be addressed as well as inspire creative new ideas. Try not to judge the situation too early on, listen without prejudice and try to hear the core message that people are trying to communicate.

Communication, and listening especially, can be even more difficult in the modern era with a remote workforce and a growing dependence on technology. But it certainly is possible. Numerous online tools have been developed that work towards breaking down online communication barriers. It can require a different mentality to communicate and listen well online, but leaders who strive to reach out to and hear directly from employees will continue to find success.  

Showing Empathy

It won’t always be easy to reach out and connect with every employee. There are certainly different communication styles that you’ll have to be aware of including socializers, directors, relaters, and thinkers. Taking the time to think about communication and respond to different employees in a way that will resonate with them is an important component of effectively conveying a message. It is also the first step in empathizing with them.

Empathy can be one of the most difficult skills to learn, but it is also one of the most highly sought-after soft skills any employee, manager, or company leader can have. It is essentially the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, think about how they might feel or react to a given situation, and adjust your actions and responses to connect with them on their level.

In the workplace, showing empathy can help you to understand an employee’s situation and recognize the outside factors that may or may not be contributing to their performance. For instance, during the Covid-19 pandemic, many employees were put in a situation where they suddenly couldn’t take their kids to school or daycare yet they still had to adapt to remote work and meet deadlines while balancing these stresses. Recognizing these unforeseen struggles and responding is empathy at work and employees appreciate it.

***

Communication skills are always something that can be improved upon, even for some of the best workplace leaders. Different aspects of communication such as increasing transparency, active listening, and developing empathy are all important to being a successful communicator and ultimately a successful company leader. 


About the Author: Luke Smith is a writer and researcher turned blogger. Since finishing college he is trying his hand at being a freelance writer. He enjoys writing on a variety of topics but technology and business topics are his favorite. When he isn't writing you can find him traveling, hiking, or gaming.

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Monday, April 5, 2021

Lean Tips Edition #169 (#2746 -2760)

For my Facebook fans you already know about this great feature. But for those of you that are not connected to A Lean Journey on Facebook or Twitter I post daily a feature I call Lean Tips.  It is meant to be advice, things I learned from experience, and some knowledge tidbits about Lean to help you along your journey.  Another great reason to like A Lean Journey on Facebook.


Here is the next addition of tips from the Facebook page:


Lean Tips #2746 – Recognize What’s Going Well 

 

Coaching well requires a balance of criticism and praise. If your coaching conversations are completely focused on what’s not working and what the employee has to do to change, that’s not motivating, it’s demoralizing. 

 

Your recognition of the things your employee is doing well can be a springboard into how they can build from that to improve. Giving compliments that you don’t actually mean can have a worse effect than not giving any at all, so take the time to think about specific things that are going well, and let your employees know that you see and appreciate them! 

 

Lean Tips #2747 – Listen and Empower 

 

Coaching requires both encouragement and empowerment. As a manager and a leader, your job is to build one-on-one relationships with employees that result in improved performance. 

 

Your employees are likely to have a lot of input, questions, and feedback. It’s important for them to know you care enough to listen to what they have to say, so encourage them to share their opinions. 

 

Some employees will have no problem speaking their mind, while others will need a LOT of encouragement before they share an opinion with you openly. Once they do open up, be sure to respect those opinions by discussing them, rather than dismissing them. 

 

Lean Tips #2748 – Understand their Perspective 

 

When you’re coaching employees to improve performance and engagement, approaching things from their perspective, rather than your own, will help enormously with seeing the changes and results you want. 

 

Everyone has different motivations, preferences, and personalities, so if you ask questions to help you understand where their “why” comes from and what their preferred “how” looks like, then you can tailor your coaching conversations to align the way they work best with the improvements you’re both aiming for. 

 

Lean Tips #2749 – Coach in the Moment 

 

If an employee comes to you with a question about a process or protocol, use this opportunity to teach them something new. If you’re not able to stop what you’re doing right away, schedule time with them as soon as possible to go over it. 

 

Better yet, keep a weekly one-on-one meeting scheduled with each employee so you can go over questions and issues regularly, while maintaining productivity. Coaching employees with a goal of improving performance means making them a priority each week! 

 

Lean Tips #2750 - Commit to Continuous Learning 

 

Make a commitment to improve your own skills and competencies. If you’re not continuously learning, why should your employees? Lead by example and your team will follow. 

 

Show that you are interested in their success (why wouldn’t you be?). Ask questions about where they see their career going, or how they see their role evolving in the company. Even if they don’t have a plan laid out yet, these questions will make them think about their career and what they want to accomplish within the organization. 

 

Show your employees that you don’t just want them to do better so you look better, but that you’re actively interested in their career, accomplishments, and professional success. 

 

Lean Tip #2751 – Focus on Gradual Small Changes Instead of Major Shifts 

 

My advice is to focus on small gradual changes rather than large changes. Small changes can be made quickly, on a daily-basis, and are typically inexpensive. By focusing on small changes, you can remove barriers from just starting a continuous improvement process. This focus will allow your team to reap the benefits of their “small wins” right away. As more and more small changes are applied, your team will see an accumulation of benefits from them. This will give them more confidence to suggest more ideas. 

 

Lean Tip #2752 – Prioritize Ideas that are Inexpensive 

 

By going after the ideas that do not require a large amount of investment, you can remove the financial barriers of your continuous improvement efforts. This process can empower the line worker to suggest and implement ideas that can improve their working process because they know that their changes do not need upper management approval. Some ideas such as reducing waste, eliminating unnecessary steps, and re-organizing in the work processes fall into this category. 

 

Lean Tip #2753 – Gather Ideas From the People Doing the Work 

 

In a Lean and continuous improvement organization employees are your greatest asset and should also be the source of generating new ideas for improvement. No one knows the work better than the person who performs it everyday. No one has more “skin in the game” about the working process than that person. As a result, the best person to suggest ideas for improvement and to implement them is the line worker. 

 

Lean Tip #2754 – Empower Employees for Improvement 

 

Although employees play a vital part in the continuous improvement process, it is management’s role to train and empower them. Most workers are unaware of Lean principles and practices such as 5S, the 8 wastes, value stream mapping, visual management, Kaizen, etc. As a result, they may not realize that many of the processes that they perform everyday and the frustration that they feel at work are due to unnecessary waste. Additionally some workers are modest and reluctant to share ideas. It is management’s role to educate their staff on Lean tools and techniques that can be applied to the continuous improvement process and to help their employees overcome any personal or psychological barrier that prevents them from trying out new ideas. 

 

Lean Tip #2755 – Continuous Improvement Requires the Right Environment 

 

Applying continuous improvement requires participation from everyone in the organization. Upper management needs to invest time and money in employee training and empowerment. Managers need to foster an environment of trust, collaboration, open communication, and a willingness to experiment. And finally, workers need to be engaged in their work and be challenged to come up with small gradual improvements each and every day. By applying these principles, your company will be able to start and sustain your continuous improvement efforts. This will lead to a more economically competitive organization, more efficient work processes, and more satisfied employees. 

 

Lean Tip #2756 – Review Your Week Every Friday. 

 

Some people go to bed at night with a whirlwind of thoughts rushing through their mind. They hardly have any time to process what they have just done simply because they are so stressed out about what’s directly ahead. 

 

Elaborating on his productivity quote, Farquhar says he sets aside a block of time each week to sit down and go over the previous week so he can answer three crucial questions: 

 

1. Did I achieve what I wanted to achieve? 

2. Did I personally need to be there for everything I attended? 

3. Could I have achieved the same in a shorter timeframe? 

 

This is a powerful tactic for determining whether you are really managing and spending your time wisely. 

 

Lean Tip #2757 – Track Changes, Challenges and Breakthroughs 

 

Self-reflection can aid in tracking changes, challenges that you face and breakthroughs in your life. Daily self-reflection lets you look back on where you have come from and helps you map out where you want to go in the future.  

 

Even more, writing down a few thoughts each day will give you perspective. You may see that weeks, months, or years later, the things that you were so worried about didn’t have a long-term impact on your life. 

 

Lean Tip #2758 – Understand Top Company Objectives 

 

For effective priorities management, it's essential to practice upward alignment before attempting downward alignment. You could be managing the most unified, productive team on the planet, but if the goals they're achieving aren't furthering the objectives most valued by stakeholders, what will that get you? 

 

If you aren't clear about overall business goals, not to mention your boss's objectives for you and your team, it could be a failing on the part of upper management. But sitting back and waiting for clarity to float down from on high will hurt you more than it hurts them. 

 

So speak up. Be bold. Proactively manage your boss until you have the tools and information you need to succeed. 

 

Lean Tip #2759 – Encourage Team to Make Time for Important But Not Urgent Work 

 

Steven Covey's seven famous habits have now been in circulation for 27 years—an entire lifetime for many of today's enterprise workers. But it never hurts to be reminded of tried-and-true principles. 

 

Covey suggested dividing work into four quadrants: 

  1. Important and Urgent 

  1. Important and Not Urgent 

  1. Not Important and Urgent 

  1. Not Important and Not Urgent 

  1.  

It's easy to find yourself spending too much time hanging out in quadrant three (Not Important and Urgent), and without a scorecard system to help you define universal standards of "importance," many of your team members will be. 

 

After all, "urgent" is one quality that's easy to identify, while other qualities can be more subjective. Make sure your priorities management system is designed to keep your team in quadrants one and two most of the time, with extremely rare forays into quadrant four. 

 

Lean Tip #2760 – BFlexible Enough to Change Your Mind and Drop Priorities 

 

As you prioritize, it’s important to remember to be flexible. No one knows what the future holds. And ultimately, prioritizing and planning is really just guessing. 

 

Sometimes you might prioritize a task only to have expectations or deliverables change on you. At this point it’s hard not to be disappointed. But you can’t let that skew your judgment. 

 

Humans are especially susceptible to the “sunk cost fallacy”—a psychological effect where we feel compelled to continue doing something just because we’ve already put time and effort into it. 

 

But the reality is that no matter what you spend your time doing, you can never get that time back. And any time spent continuing to work towards the wrong priority is just wasted time. 

 

Sometimes our effort is better used switching boats than trying to fix a leak. 

 

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