My Tried and True Lean Leadership Practices

Last month I attended the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals (CSCMP) annual conference where I managed a support staff that consisted of smart, talented young professionals. These young professionals were there to work at the conference and serve in a support capacity. My goal was to provide leadership and direction to these individuals so that after the conference was over, they would feel that: 1) they had supported the conference effectively, 2) their time and efforts were valuable, 3) they learned, and that 4) they had made connections with industry leaders. I advised my team to also attend as many presentations and educational sessions as possible to make sure they could experience the amazing learning spirit that fills the walls of a convention center during a conference.

In my own capacity as a leader at the conference, I made sure to follow some tried and true, basic Lean Leadership best practices:

Create Your Team's Game Plan

When I was asked to lead a team for the conference staff, I was nervous and excited at the same time. But thankfully, I had my lean “toolbox” and experience to fall back on. The first thing I did was to make a plan, following the PDCA cycle I know so well from my day to day work at LeanCor. I scheduled my 12 team members’ work and free time (based on preferences they submitted) as well as my own time to show good example. I wanted us to be a well oiled machine as soon as we arrived at the conference.

Set Clear Expectations

One of the most important things in lean leadership is to set clear expectations before and after the action items on the project are assigned. It is also very important to get input from and finalize the plan together as a team, so I organized a pre-conference group phone call (complete with call agenda) with all 12 people (whom I have never met before). Believe me, they thought I was going overboard. They thought, “what can be so complicated about supporting a conference?" They soon realized the group phone call was valuable. I shared the work schedule and the team had several questions that originated during the call. Afterward I distributed a re-cap email with the most important discussion points to the whole team. By the time we got to the conference, we were already a team, a well oiled machine, sharing an understanding of what was expected from us.

Instill Customer Service Oriented Values

Arriving to the conference, my team and I were very happy we had a plan. As in facilitating any large scale professional event, the to-do list was long and full of unexpected turns along the way. However, we did not let being overwhelmed inhibit our service to the customer. We followed the timeless golden rule: “Never say 'I don’t know.' Instead, say, 'I will find out for you.” This phrase and a smile works every time. It seems like common sense. But as leaders, if we don't instill these values in team members, how will they know?


Admitting you don't know conveys a deep sense of humility, an attitude where we understand that we don’t know everything and we always have room for improvement. In the lean world, we call this "Hansei." Hansei is a central idea in Japanese culture. Its means to acknowledge your own mistake and to pledge improvement. This is important for a leader to embrace. Team members certainly appreciate this attitude, as my experience has shown. In fact, as I heard at one of the conference panel discussions lead by supply chain leaders: “Someone who has all the answers shouldn't be trusted." In a team environment, we always have to remember that others are watching us. Building relationships with our team is of utmost importance. We don’t want to be one of those people who get great things done but leave “burnt cities” behind as far as personal relationships are concerned. Good managers are the ones that people want to work for. Thanks to our careful planning and clearly set expectations, I was able to trust all of my team members and delegate tasks. I was surprised and very happy to see how innovative they were, and how much they were able to help other teams who were struggling with direction.

Challenge Your Team...And Yourself

In order to help our team members grow and professionally develop, we need to challenge them with new tasks and learning new things; we need to let them know we have faith in their capabilities. But we also have to do that for ourselves. This is one of the basic principles of lean and just like so many parts of this great philosophy, is a paradox. Our basic human nature works in the opposite direction. We work towards a comfortable path of standardized ways to do things; we strive to achieve stability through bulletproof processes. This is just as lean as throwing the whole thing in the air, shaking it up and looking at where we can change and improve it. Basically, we say: create standards, then change them continuously to improve the process. What is this, if not insanity? But it makes a lot of sense, and I am a true believer of continuous learning and improvement. Don’t stay where you are comfortable; put yourself into project teams at your workplace that are covering a new topic for you. Be very conscious about this effort because I promise you, it won’t come naturally Like I said, it’s against basic human nature. But if you embrace this philosophy and take risks when taking on new projects, you will grow in your profession. Remember: If you’re comfortable, you’re probably not growing. As leaders we face situations daily that we don’t exactly know the answer to, we are constantly on unknown/uncomfortable territory.

Wouldn't it be great if we were completely OK with that? That’s what makes a great leader.

Written by Susie Sterling, Team Leader at LeanCor

For more take-aways on Lean Leadership, check out the latest resource from


PEOPLE: A leader’s day-to-day guide to building, managing and sustaining lean organizations

Building a lean problem-solving culture begins and ends with people and leadership. While many books teach about lean tools, few address the day-to-day leadership requirements of successfully transforming organizations into the lean enterprise. In 15 easy-to-read-and-reference chapters, People: A leader’s day-to-day guide to building, managing, and sustaining lean organizations, outlines the high-level concepts, activities, principles, and practices that a lean leader must know intimately and apply daily. This book was written with the sole purpose of fundamentally changing how you think and act relative to leadership.

A lean leader is an educator, trainer, coach, and mentor. The lean leader is always planning, sharing the plan, and executing the plan based on deep knowledge of his team members’ personalities, skills, and how the game is played. As a student and teacher, the lean leader understands the value of people. We love the game, and the people who play it.

Full Introduction (PDF)

Full Table of Contents (PDF)

Book Description

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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