4 Ways to Embrace a Lean Leadership Style

“It’s not easy taking my problems one at a time when they refuse to get in line.” – Ashleigh Brillant

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Resistance to lean at all levels of an organization often comes from tribal knowledge and experiences accumulated under decades of traditional leadership. This is why creating a lean culture can be so difficult and time consuming – you are teaching behavior that is radically different from the norm. Understanding the difference between the two leadership philosophies can help you recognize the roots of resistance and craft a strategy to overcome it.

Observation and communication are the foundation of the tactical infrastructure of lean. Everyone must be trained to observe process to look for waste, and then find the root cause of waste by asking questions: Do we know who the customer is, what they expect, and are those expectations visible? Is there standard work in place for critical processes? Is the current status of the process visual for all to see? Is there a process for gaps between plan and actual to be identified?

Your job isn’t only to teach how to do; you must also teach how to think. Team members have been encouraged to get things done without stopping to think about what they are doing or why they are doing it. The lean enterprise is different. The core lean activities cycle is composed mostly thinking/learning/sharing.

Lean Leadership – Be Tough on Process and Talk to People about Their Work

When you discover a problem, start talking to team members about their work (the process). Ask why and not who. If a team or organization is not providing good quality to the customer, it’s because the process is not providing good quality to the customer. This is perhaps the most striking difference between the two leadership styles, and hence is often the concept traditional leaders find hardest to accept.

By making problems visible and people accountable, lean leadership makes blaming a pointless practice. The facts are there for all to see. Furthermore, by focusing on process failure instead of people failure, you take responsibility for that failure because it’s a leader’s job to make sure effective processes are in place and standard work is being followed.

Lean Leadership – Give Credit for Good Work to the People Doing Work

In a lean organization, team members own their work, not managers or executives. So when a team improves their work so that it aligns more closely with organizational purpose and the customer defined value proposition, give the glory to the members of the team. Your reward comes from quietly shining at the back of the room while they take bow.

Lean Leadership – Be Humble, but Confident; Fair, but Diligent

Learning starts with identifying what you don’t know, it’s okay to say you don’t understand something or lack an answer to a question. This can be devastating for a traditional leader. On the flip side, it can be devastating for a lean leader to say he understands something when he doesn’t know the full story.

Humility in leadership is discourages in a traditional management structure; but in a lean organization, humility is essential. You alone can’t solve the problem. You need the knowledge that resides within other people, and to elicit that knowledge and the performance needed to fix problems, you must show respect to those doing the work.

At the same time, be confident and diligent as you set high standards and expectations. This also demonstrates respect for people and feeds the never-ending quest to reduce waste: As more and more wasteful work is removed, value-creating work expands, so lean process improvement – through improvement events, standard work, PDCA – spreads throughout the organization.

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Posted by LeanCor Supply Chain Group

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LeanCor Supply Chain Group is a trusted supply chain partner that specializes in lean principles to deliver operational improvement. LeanCor’s three integrated divisions – LeanCor Training and Education, LeanCor Consulting, and LeanCor Logistics – help organizations eliminate waste, drive down costs, and build a culture of continuous improvement.

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