September 22

Lean Leadership: Creating Change Through People

Adopting lean leadership principles is likely one of the most underrated aspects of creating a lean business.

Lean philosophies are perhaps most commonly known for its many process improvement tools for operational excellence such as 5S, kanban cards, takt time and just-in-time delivery. While these tools are important to drive an operationally excellent manufacturing business, they are not what makes the business lean in the first place.

In fact, these tools are only categorized as the final step in the 4P model popularized by Jeffrey Liker in the “Toyota Way”, otherwise know by many lean enthusiasts as the “lean bible”. As a result, it is common that companies who skip straight to implementing lean tools often don’t realize much results.

What these companies fail to realize is that lean process improvement tools are only as effective as the people who use them. In order to create the environment for operational excellence, one must first ensure that the company has a sound approach to lean leadership.

Lean Management: How Leadership Management makes People your Greatest Assets.

The first step to creating leadership management that deeply revolves around lean management principles is making the the following realization:

The people in your organization are your greatest assets.

While this may seem obvious to some, it is a sad reality that many employers today simply view their people as liabilities. People are expensive, inefficient when compared to machines, and can even create drama and complications for their employers. It is often because of this that many employers believe the future of their business lies in outsourcing to minimize costs, or replace people with automation to improve efficiency.

We have heard stories like this for some time now. How often do we hear stories about these strategies working out to create a better, more efficient and profitable company in the long run?

Interestingly enough, some of the most excellent companies in the world are taking the opposite approach. Instead of measuring productivity by how much of the time people are actively working on something, these companies actively work to cut down on production time in order to free up people to work on process improvement. While managers in traditional companies might not trust their employees to be able to handle more responsibility than carrying out their tasks, workers in lean companies are actively trusted and encouraged to create and improve upon the specification of their work, allowing them to creatively implement process improvement.

lean management
In order to achieve lean management, it is essential to view people as assets rather than liabilities.

While it may seem obvious that a company full of independent, energized and creative workers will outperform the traditional institution hell-bent on creating rigid work standards made for the lowest common denominator, creating such a company is easier said than done. That being said, there are a couple of key takeaways for businesses who seek to achieve lean management.

Achieving Lean Project Management Through Enabling Bureaucracies

When trying to create a culture of lean project management in an organization, the leadership are faced with a dilemma. On one hand, enabling people is key to lean leadership, but management still needs to retain control in directing the organization’s efforts toward value creation.

Many project managers make the mistake of believing these aspects are mutually exclusive. In doing so, these managers are forced to pick one or the other, either creating a completely organic system without any direction or ability to deliver relevant work, or creating a coercive bureaucracy by forcing strict rules that stifle creativity.

The key to lean management lies in realizing that creating systems and rules (bureaucracies) are not separate to the organization’s ability to enable people. In fact, creating systems and frameworks can, when done correctly, create an environment that supports the development and experimentation of people. This organizational structure is called “enabling bureaucracy”, and is the cornerstone of any operational part of lean organizations.

lean project management
Creating an enabling bureaucracy is essential to achieving lean project management.

In enabling bureaucracies, leaders have a developmental responsibility for their subordinates, as well as a performance-based responsibility. By setting strict expectations for subordinates, yet little in terms of actual job specifications, leaders are encouraged to simply question the strategies and actions the subordinate has taken. Not giving any answers, these questions are made in order to let the subordinate arrive at the conclusions themselves, indirectly encouraging their curiosity and personal growth.

In order for this to work, it is paramount that leaders truly live the values and principles of the company, and that they lead by example. 

Lean Leadership Training: Creating a Lean Culture

As mentioned above, lean leadership training is essential to create leaders that in turn create high performing teams through enabling bureaucracies. Developing leaders who lead by example is done in exactly the same way as developing subordinates, just at a step higher up in the chain of command. 

Leadership training is time-consuming and requires constant attention by superiors, the topic is vast and deserves an entire article on its own. For now; here are a couple of key important aspects of leaders who foster lean culture:

  • Team focused: When great leaders are faced with a dilemma, the first question they always ask are “What is best for the team?”. These leaders should have a deep, clear understanding of the operational goals of the team (as well as the strategic goal of the entire organization) and make decisions according to them.
  • Taking ownership: As popularized by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin in “Extreme Ownership”, the idea of taking ownership is essential to leading a team. Taking ownership of anything, no matter who or what caused an error, not only quickly lets the leader take action to resolve said issue, but quickly inspires team members to do the same.
  • Taking action: Great leaders might not always have a solution, but they should have a clear goal of what they aim to accomplish. Great leaders establish clear goals for the team and take on the responsibility to find a solution. It is not easy to be a leader, but it is not necessary to be perfect.
  • Authenticity and emotional resilience: Staking out a goal while admitting that they don’t have a solution takes an ability to be vulnerable. Authentically shoving their vulnerable self to the rest of their team is a proof of emotional resilience, gaining both respect and compassion from their subordinates.
  • Personal and psychological health management: It is an old saying that you can’t manage others if you can’t manage yourself. Personal and psychological health permeates everything the leader does, and in truth, being social animals we humans are often quick to judge fellow human beings who do not take care of themselves.

As mentioned before, developing people is quite time-consuming. In fact, out of all the stages in developing operationally excellent organizations, it is by far the most cumbersome. If you seek to develop yourself or your organization’s leadership capabilities, you need to seek out good resources to learn more while committing to continuous development.

lean leadership training
Lean leadership training and mentoring is essential to establishing a lean culture.

At Kaizen Leaders, we are deeply passionate about leadership. Through our coaching sessions we actively engage with our clients to develop exactly these aspects, and if you would like to learn more, feel free to read more about our leadership consulting services. The difficult part in developing leadership specifically, is that leadership is a deeply practical skill. What sets our consultants apart in this regard is the combination of our academic knowledge and practical experience from high- (and low) performance organizations to deliver you personalized solutions for your organizations. Alternatively, we would be remiss not to mention the excellent resources on leadership written by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin (our favourites being “Extreme Ownership” and “The Dichotomy of Leadership”), or chapters 4 and 5 from “Designing the Future” by Jeffrey Liker and James Morgan.


lean leadership, lean management

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