Jim Womack is constantly talking about how we are all leaders in our organisations, and that it is not good enough to simply say “this will never work here because we don’t have the right leadership”. In lean organisations everyone is involved with the improvements, even if it is only improving the flow and eliminating waste in the small piece of the value stream that we are familiar with.
In their book The Hitchhikers Guide to Lean, Jamie Flinchbaugh and Andy Carlino offer some words of wisdom for Leaders in organisations embarking on Lean. Here is a short extract from their book.
Why is leadership such an important topic in Lean transformation? Because Lean is not something you engineer. When done right, Lean changes the way you think, talk, see, act, and react. It’s a battle for employee minds and hearts, and such battles require leadership. Toyota told Harvard Business Review this about its success: “Lean helped us focus our reflection on how we can get closer to True North.”
Perfection isn’t a goal to conquer; it’s a compass indicating in what direction to advance. Daily pursuit toward perfection is vital to successful Lean transformation. A vision of True North, and a clear view of current reality, creates a tension in the organization that, in turn, feeds creativity. We usually relieve that tension in one of two ways. Option one is we lower the vision: “We don’t have to be that good—no one else is.” Option two is to artificially raise our perception of current reality: “You know, we really are pretty good.” But neither of these helps us move forward as much as a clear view of current reality, and a vision of the ideal state.
Flinchbaugh and Carlino continue their discussion with five leadership moves, or actions, a leader can perform to provide leadership on the Lean journey:
Leadership Move 1: Leaders Must Be Teachers
In a Lean organization, learning is critical, and line management’s direct responsibility. Lean is based on how people think; simply defined, Lean is shared thinking. Management and employees need common philosophy, ideas, and principles. Leaders can’t just put workers into situations, and hope they learn the right things. They should take responsibility for the message, combining real-life experience with direct coaching. An organization’s principles should become guideposts to help people make tough decisions. Studies indicate almost half of large U.S. corporations feature “respect” and “integrity” as corporate values. These are effective principles, but they don’t help employees make tough decisions.
Leadership Move 2: Build Tension, Not Stress
A Lean leader needs to be the source of energy that compels the organization toward action. Too often, leaders create stress instead of tension. Workers feel stress when conditions are nearly impossible, and the path forward is shrouded in fog. By contrast, tension is experienced when they sense a gap between current reality and the ideal state. With resources and support from leadership, employees see a clear path to move forward on. Unproductive pushing leads to stress; productive pushing paves the way for tension. Three elements turn stress into tension: a vision of the ideal state; a clear grasp and hatred of current reality; and the right skills, capability, and actions to close the gap between the two. A leader must provide all three elements, or productive tension won’t be created. Every person, function, and process should have an ideal state. Ideal states are not documents, but ongoing dialogues that take place as leaders teach, coach, and encourage workers every day. To provide a compass for the journey, participants in Lean transformation must have a clear sense of where they are currently, as well the ideal state to which they are heading. They must understand their relevance to the big picture and long-term success. Some say it’s difficult to develop a hatred for the current state, but it’s not really that hard. Take a group of employees on a waste-walk and focus on what frustrates them, and they’ll see opportunities. The most financially successful companies are filled with people who are disgusted by the current condition, but believe they have no control over it.
This brings to light the third element of creating tension: presenting a clear path forward. After creating pictures of ideal and current states, leaders can’t passively hope employees will act. To drive change, a leader must give people the right skills and knowledge to close the gap, and make tough decisions about things such as organizational structure. If leaders provide no direction, employees will look at the chasm to be crossed, then at each other to see who will act. Everyone has his or her own ideas about how to cross the chasm, but no one will make that leap alone. A leader must pull people together (through consensus or dictatorship), and provide a way to cross.
Leadership Move 3: Eliminate Fear and Comfort
Lean culture requires action, experimentation, and new thinking—all of which involves risk. Many organizations, even innovators known as risk-takers, are risk-averse internally. Leaders need to eliminate fear of innovation and comfort in the status quo. Learning occurs when employees leave the comfort zone that’s been providing them with safe haven from changes they think are out of their control. A Lean leader must eliminate the comfort zone, and direct employees to the learning zone, changing the conditions and rules under which they operate. This does not mean chaos and unorganized change. Stepping out of the comfort zone should be purposeful, continuous, and multidimensional, setting clear goals and providing mechanisms. It’s not about setting higher targets; it’s about requiring individuals and organizations to purposefully experiment. If a leader asks a worker every day about experiments he or she has performed toward improvement, the worker eventually has to conduct some experiments to answer the question.
In addition to eliminating the comfort zone, the Lean leader must eliminate fear. When employees step too far outside their comfort zones, they enter fear zones. To eliminate that, leaders should provide safety in three distinct forms: physical, emotional, and professional. Workers need to feel safe before they’ll try new things. Employees who suggest new ideas in staff meetings and are ridiculed will think twice before speaking out again. Lean leaders have to squelch criticism and provide emotional safety. Attacks often come in subtle, passive-aggressive forms, but the leader must address them head-on, or employees will get the message that failure must be avoided—even at the expense of not improving. While workers who repeat the same mistakes should be disciplined, those who take risks, and learn, should be rewarded.
A Lean leader can move employees out of comfort zones by modeling proper behavior. Many leaders model “knower” instead of “learner” behavior, creating the impression they know everything. “Knower” leaders hide gaps in their knowledge, which they consider to be signs of weakness. But workers have greater respect for leaders with integrity, who know their limitations, and are willing to become vulnerable. “Learner” leaders acknowledge failures and publicly learn from them. Building creative tension is not a one-time, organization-wide event. It’s everyday behavior, based on dialogue and coaching—not featured in brochures, but in actions.
Leadership Move 4: Lead Through Visible Participation, Not Proclamation
Perhaps the greatest falsehood in change management is the myth of “management buy-in.” But buy-in, or being behind an initiative, is different than being in “front” of it. A major element of Lean manufacturing is pulling product through process, not pushing it through. When a leader is pushing, people don’t know if they’re being pushed toward something better, or off a cliff. They don’t have this concern if leaders are out in front, pulling.
Too many leaders think that by allocating resources, attending reporting sessions, and writing a few company-wide e-mails, they’ve done their part in leading Lean, but that’s not enough for cultural and operational transformation. Management buy-in must turn into leadership commitment, or the organization will never reach full potential.
What does commitment look like? Think: active engagement. Leaders often believe they don’t have time to commit to active participation, that it’s sufficient to proclaim the importance of Lean. Employees watch everyday actions of leaders, and if leaders spend their time on financial reviews, status reports, and decision-making, workers will mimic those priorities. When leaders participate in (or ideally, lead) waste-walks and problem-solving coaching, employees understand Lean warrants priority status. Coaching entails side-by-side engagement, encouragement, and support. Setting a good example is not the only reason to actively participate in Lean. By participating, leaders observe how Lean is understood and applied. Teams solving problems and identifying, and eliminating waste tell a leader more about the Lean transformation’s current state than reports.
Leadership Move 5: Build Lean Into Personal Practice
Leaders who view Lean as something that only applies to others make a critical mistake. They should take a good look at their own practices—starting with standardization—developing clearly structured processes for certain activities, designing a structured flow for their own time, and becoming more predictive. Standardization, despite its sound, is not static, but dynamic, changing with conditions, needs, and improvements. Leaders should build on standardization with learning, or the scientific method. They need to make decisions, solve problems, and deliver improvements with a deliberate sense of accomplishment. Suppose there is an improvement idea to reallocate resources out of quality, and back into line management. The scientific method would begin with a hypothesis, the linchpin for learning. The hypothesis might be to make line management more responsible for quality—that 50 percent more defects will be found in process vs. inspection, for example. The hypothesis can be tested, resulting in valuable information, which aids learning. Scientific method and process improvement are at the heart of Lean culture. Leaders and managers become more effective by aggressively applying Lean to their job functions. Applying Lean to leaders’ and managers’ job functions conveys legitimacy, so it’s important for leaders to broadcast their use of Lean to those around them.
To teach, a leader has to learn, and learning Lean is more than a cerebral exercise. A leader can read a few slides on Lean, but won’t be able to coach employees to apply Lean thinking daily. By applying Lean to everything, a leader becomes a more effective teacher. Remember what leadership is really about: It’s not a job; it’s an act. Leaders have to learn how to teach, build creative tension, and eliminate fear and comfort. Leaders need to actively participate in the transformation of the business, and apply Lean to their own jobs.
Jamie Flinchbaugh and Andy Carlino are founders of the Lean Learning Center and can be contacted at www.leanlearningcenter.com.