10 lean leadership lessons from our authors

10 lessons on lean leadership

FEATURE – What does it mean to be a lean leader? Our editor tries to answer this question by searching the Planet Lean archives for the best nuggets of wisdom from our authors.

Words: Roberto Priolo, Managing Editor, Planet Lean

Leadership. It can make or break a lean transformation. Heck, it can make or break a whole company! I can’t count the times I have been told, during interviews and casual conversations, “Without leadership’s commitment, lean has no hope of succeeding.” Indeed, in a lean company, it is up to a leader to rally people around a common goal, give them the tools to pursue that goal, and assist them along the way.

It is no coincidence that leadership behaviors – together with the management system – lie at the heart of the house representing the Lean Transformation Framework. As strong as the pillars (people development and process improvement) can be, without leadership maintaining them – checking for cracks or giving them a fresh coat of paint, so to speak – the whole thing can come crumbling down.

Of course, leading and supporting a transformation is hard. Whether you are a born leader or you have developed your leadership skills through sweat and tears, your journey is likely to be difficult. As a leader, you will face challenges from both within the company (people management, faulty processes, unclear strategy, etc) and from the outside world (most recently, supply chain drama and soaring prices) and, in the midst of all that you’ll be responsible for leading the cultural change necessary to transform your business.

Often times, you’ll be faced with the unsettling feeling of “not knowing what to do”. The good news is that, if you have done your homework and built a lean system (or started to, at least), where learning happens continuously and problem-solving is a daily activity, you are more likely than not to be in a position where there is no question that cannot be answered, no problem that cannot be solved, no challenge that cannot be overcome. The bad news is that to develop and nurture such a system is your responsibility as a leader, whether you sit in the Board Room, run a department or participate in an improvement at the gemba.

Over the years, Planet Lean has featured countless inspirational stories of lean leadership and I thought it’d be good to try and capture some of the learnings leaders have shared with us. The result is the list below, which is not meant to be exhaustive but that it is sure to offer some food for thought. So, here you have 10 lessons from some of the world’s best lean leaders.

1. Go see, ask why, show respect. OK, this one is really essential. This Toyota mantra embodies in a simple, yet powerful way what the role of lean leader is all about. You can’t expect to successfully run a business from an office, you need to “get your hands dirty”, join people at the gemba and learn as much as you can about the work and the problems preventing people from doing it by asking the right questions. Your presence at the gemba is also a great show of respect, as it proves you care about people and that you are there to help. Dr Jack Billi of Michigan Medicine said: “The hardest part is to understand that the real way to help people is by listening to their problems and letting them solve them autonomously. After that, the more time you spend learning about the work and about problems, the more comfortable you feel asking questions.”

2. Never assume you know the answer; ask questions instead. I encourage you to reject the idea, prevalent in the business world, that the leader is expected to know what to do at all times and that if you don’t you are less of a leader. In fact, we lean thinkers believe that “I don’t know” is a fine answer, and that humility is a praise-worthy and necessary trait for a lean leader. As Karen Gaudet, a former Starbucks exec now with the Lean Enterprise Institute, said in this article, “It is difficult as a leader to set down your arrogance of knowing and begin to understand, particularly in front of those you are leading. To one day simply say, ‘I don’t know. Let’s go see together to understand,’ as opposed to spoon-feeding people the answer is one of the most freeing and rewarding steps a leader can take.”

3. Treat people like individuals, not numbers. Too many organizations still treat people (the “workforce” or “human capital”) as a commodity, rather than the extraordinary resource that they are. This could be a negative result of capitalism and the mass-production mentality that came with it, in which people weren’t any more important than the nuts and bolts making up the mechanism that allows a machine to run. Enter Toyota and Lean Thinking, which remind us constantly that workers are before anything else people, deserving of respect. Their problems are our problems, and listening to them is key to turning them into our allies in establishing a lean enterprise. Sharon Visser, former Principal of a car dealership in Botswana, did just that, when she invited each and every one of her employees to her office to individually discuss their problems and fears as lean wind of change started to blow in the organization.

4. Be a champion of problem solving at the gemba. Developing everyone’s problem-solving skills is perhaps a leader’s most important job, as it is the attainment of those skills that will ultimately enable the organization to thrive and always find new solutions to ever-changing problems. To become a good problem solver entails engaging in deep reflection, developing an eye for finding problems, and using a scientific approach to solve them. For example, Dr Frederico Pinto, CEO of one of the best lean healthcare organizations in the world (the Instituto de Oncologia do Vale, in Brazil), goes to the gemba every single day and participates in at least one rapid improvement event each week (as per his standard work). The hospital has also implemented a system – called kaizen shifts – under which there are special times of the week during which people work on their A3s, and “Dr Fred” makes sure he coaches at least one person on an A3 every week – “no matter how small the problem might seem.” Read more here.

5. Develop other leaders. The definition of “lean leader” is somewhat lose. You can be a lean leader regardless of where you sit in the company structure. Indeed, anyone can display lean leadership and it is up to these people – who are often those who first embraced lean and brought it to the firm – to develop leadership skills in everyone else. Christophe Riboulet, President of Institut Lean France and also President of Proditec, says his role as a leader is “to find those in the organization who have the potential to become leaders and to develop them so that they can build the next generation of products using the next generation of technologies. […] As a CEO, you need to continuously challenge yourself to run experiments with your people and go in new directions.” Developing new leaders means to make learning by experimenting a daily occurrence in the business.

6. Don’t let failure scare you. As mentioned above, there will lots of highs in your journey but also lots and lots of lows. A lean transformation often feels like taking a step forward only to take two steps back the following day. It’s important to acknowledge and accept this, and to not let failure rattle you. After all, it is from it that we learn the most. Like problems, failure is a good thing! In 2018, The Joint Commission visited Lynn Community Health Center in Lynn, Massachusetts and put the organization on probation (they always passed assessments with flying colors). This blow came at a particularly difficult time for the organization, which had just lost 40% of its leadership team and was going through a budget crisis. But CEO Kiame Mahaniah was determined to see the glass half full. Here, he said: “When you have that many problems, it feels like whack-a-mole. Being able to visualize most of the findings within one value stream meant that as you put duck-tape here and there as a temporary fix you can use what you learn from the fire-fighting to plan for the stabilization of the process. I believe that The Joint Commission gave us a huge gift, because now we have something concrete to focus on. I have yet to convince my people that probation is a gift!”

7. Walk the walk. In lean, you gotta practice what you preach. How can you tell people to get to the root-cause of a problem when you routinely jump to conclusions? How can you ask them to observe the work at the gemba when you rarely leave your office? It is fundamental for leaders to transform their way of thinking and acting before they try to transform other people’s. Gray Dube, CEO of Leratong Hospital in South Africa, said in this interview: “Before you can truly implement lean, you have to change yourself and your own behaviour. This realization really pushed me to change my own ways and employ […] key behaviours of a lean CEO that include willingness, humility, curiosity, perseverance and self-discipline. I rate myself in each of them [using a radar chart]. […] As a lean CEO, I know how important it is to offer my support, remove barriers, listen to front-line staff and hear what hardships they are experiencing in order to create value for patients. Once I initiated my own personal improvement, I cascaded this to my leadership team – teaching them about the fundamental behaviors they had to develop.”

8. Be prepared to learn lean over and over again. Lean Thinking is elusive by nature, and to think our interpretation of it is set in stone would be a mistake. Our understanding of lean never stops evolving and, as many lean leaders will tell you, you truly never stop learning new things about it. No matter how far along in your journey you are. Here, Cecile Roche, Lean and Agile Director at Thales in France, wrote: “Every day I feel like I start grasping lean all over again. You can have the basic principles clear from the onset – and understand that lean is more than a program, a project, or a tool – but you never really stop learning. It’s one of the many paradoxes of lean!”

9. Be patient. We have hinted to this already: lean requires a lot of patience, with the false starts and struggles that hinder every journey. But there is something else to say on this: as leaders, we are often the most vocal ambassadors of lean in the organization and it’s important not to forget that not everyone shares our same enthusiasm or understanding of the methodology. Everybody learns at their own pace and force-feeding them lean as “the way to go” can be counterproductive. It’s important to resist the urge to tell people what to do. Denise Bennett, a pioneer of lean in government and healthcare in Australia, admits that patience is something she had to work hard on and that she still struggles with, especially when dealing with the patience of others. She says: “Senior leaders are constantly looking for the silver bullet that will bring the improvement they are seeking – fast. On the other hand, lean leaders know that there is no silver bullet and that it takes time and constancy of purpose to achieve results. It’s definitely the race of the tortoise and not the hare.”

10. Share your learnings with others, and learn from them. Lean leaders have a responsibility towards the wider community, not just their organization. By sharing their learnings with other companies, they can contribute to the spread of Lean Thinking across entire sectors and geographical areas. Of course, this is a two-way street: invite others to visit your gemba today and they will invite to visit theirs tomorrow. These synergies play a pivotal role in the advancement of a lean journey, because when we look at what others are doing – even across different industries – we learn a lot. We have seen this at play on several occasions, a leading example being the healthcare sector in the Spanish region of Catalonia, which over the past decade or so has turned into a bona fide cluster of lean excellence, with countless hospitals adopting the methodology. Learn more about cross-pollination by watching this video interview with Oriol Cuatrecasas, President of Instituto Lean Management and one of the architects of this lean boom.


Roberto Priolo photo

Roberto Priolo is Managing Editor of Planet Lean.