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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