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Anatomy of a Lean Leader (Introduction)

Bussell, Jerry

About the Book

Leaders of lean-thinking organizations require some unique, even contradictory traits. They must be servants as well as trailblazers, good listeners and mentors as well as visionaries and team players. While traditional companies might be able to get by with old-fashioned, command-and-control managers, lean organizations need the talents, enthusiasm, and opinions of every person. This means that leaders must serve the people and the processes while guiding everyone toward fulfilling the organization’s true purpose. It is a tall order and, in many ways, a new definition of leadership.

For 30 years, Jerry Bussell studied leadership while bringing lean practices to companies such as Medtronic and becoming a passionate, well-known advocate for lean. In that time, he saw many lean initiatives fail through lack of leadership or repeated missteps by those in charge. Realizing that leaders rarely understood the needs of an organization that is becoming highly efficient, self-motivated and improvement driven, he set out to help. In a lean environment, after all, true leadership is not a nicety; it is a necessity.

In this book, Jerry identifies the ten essential characteristics of a lean leader and illustrates those traits with stories from modern CEOs and one of this country’s greatest leaders, President Abraham Lincoln. Whether you are a CEO or running your first kaizen event, this book will keep you engaged and help you focus on the behaviors and attitudes that are essential to creating the kind of continuous open-loop improvement that is the heart of lean thinking.

The book is available for purchase from ul.com/books.

Introduction by Jerry Bussell

"One of the most difficult things a person can attempt is to lead a group of people in a unified course of action. Whether the leader is a basketball coach, grade-school teacher or a Fortune 500 chief executive, the dilemma is the same: how to inspire people to do their best possible work, using their own skills and energy toward a common cause.

"Over the course of 30-plus years in business leadership positions, I have seen plenty of people do this badly. I have seen executives bully their way through delicate situations, lay down laws, or hide behind layers of management and call it leadership. Even when bad management got results, however, nobody could mistake it for leadership. True leadership is rare and, for me, it was a little like art -- hard to define, but I knew it when I saw it and was always inspired."

Because my career has been largely focused on transforming businesses using lean thinking, the question of leadership in this unique environment became a life-long fascination. Lean businesses, after all, have special leadership requirements. Before we go into those requirements, however, let’s define lean thinking. I assume that readers of this book have a pretty good understanding of lean, but there are many programs and initiatives out there that claim to be lean while not reading from the same page. So, let’s have a common definition. My friend Jim Womack, who coined the term lean thinking along with his co-author Dan Jones in the book by the same name, defines lean this way:

Lean thinking is an organization-wide strategy that focuses on delivering ever more value, as defined by the customer, through continuous improvement of processes to eliminate waste. Lean does this by this by engaging people at all levels of the organization every day to improve their work and their work experience for the benefit of the customer.

In a customer-centric organization such as this, where everyone is actively engaged in improving processes and delivering more value to the customer, the power structure is – or should be – upside down. The most important people are the front-line workers who make the goods or provide the services that the customer desires. The leader is in service to everyone actually making the product, as well as to the customer. Even junior team members can be called upon to lead continuous improvement teams that might include all levels of management.

In a lean business, everyone in the company inhabits the same eco-system. We work to create a continuous, open loop of improvement that feeds off the knowledge and skills of everyone in the organization. Managing by fiat or shutting down the opinions of others is a poison to the system. In this environment true leadership is not a nicety, it is a necessity.

After years spent studying great leaders, visiting lean organizations around the world and leading large organizations, I began presenting what I knew of leadership at conferences. In conversation with others, I further honed my understanding of great leadership into the 10 characteristics of a lean leader. A successful lean leader must be:

  • Purposeful
  • Respectful
  • Transparently honest
  • An influencer
  • A continuous learner
  • Persistent
  • A holistic thinker
  • A problem solver
  • Results-driven
  • Courageous

Fortunately, these characteristics can be acquired. All it takes is knowledge, the desire to adopt new habits, and willingness to accept feedback from others. Before diving in to a full discussion of each of these characteristics and how they apply to a lean organization, however, I should offer some background – the building blocks of these ideas.

Beginning in the early 1990s while studying for my MBA – and already incorporating lean ideas into an Allergan, Inc. site in Waco, Texas where I was managing director – I searched for the magic recipe that could make an ordinary person into a leader. My studies took me from the contemporary leadership theories of Warren Bennis and Stephen Covey to great leaders and thinkers such as Socrates and Abraham Lincoln.

From Bennis and Covey, I learned to search deeper for leadership than mere behaviors. In his classic, On Becoming a Leader, Bennis outlines four essential competencies. Every leader, he writes, must be able to create shared meanings, have a distinctive voice – which mostly involves revealing one’s true self – and display integrity. The most important trait, he wrote, was adaptive capacity: the ability to relentlessly and intelligently change.[1]

In books and workshops, Covey taught me to lead based on timeless principles such as honesty, courage and humility. Principles drive behavior, Covey asserts, and we need to lead from that deep core instead of simply demanding certain conduct. Having studied for the priesthood as a young man, where I searched for my true purpose in life, these lessons resonated with me. Leadership was not so much about the words we used or the business theories we espoused; it was about acting from the basis of our moral values, from an unshakeable foundation of integrity.

This style of leadership not only felt right, it got results. Following training in Covey’s 7 Habits,[2] I saw my team become more engaged and enthusiastic, offering ideas about improvement and bringing fresh energy to the cause. Still, I knew I was only scratching the surface.

In reading about the lives of Socrates and Lincoln, I could see this kind of principled leadership in action. Lincoln’s ability to knit together a nation at odds and free it from slavery, and Socrates' commitment to engaging people to find answers through their own reason, was inspirational. The lives of these men were illustrations of the very thing I was trying to understand. Through the years, I collected biographies and stories, trying to understand the common traits that made them great leaders. I wanted to find the formula.

By 1998, I was practicing continuous improvement as director of Operations at the surgical supply manufacturing company, Xomed. My knowledge of continuous improvement was limited, but I read the books I could find and trained my team using Covey’s 7 Habits and the ideas of the Toyota Production System. This mash-up was getting great results. Our customer fill rate – or, our percentage of orders filled and shipped on time – jumped from 75 percent to 99. Quality was up and costs were down. But it was a home brew.

What we needed, CEO Jim Treace told me, was an organizing model for world-class operations. He gave me one year to research the best improvement systems and find a good fit for Xomed. Eight months later, I was running out of time and discouraged when a brochure for the Shingo Prize Conference crossed my desk. It was there I realized just how much I did not know about lean thinking.

In one presentation after another, I saw companies struggling with common problems and making incredible leaps in performance through the application of lean. In the hallways, my team just looked at me. I thought we were doing great things at Xomed, but I was wrong. “Great” was still a long way off.

More than the tools and results, what really impressed me among the lean organizations were the leaders. I met CEOs like Art Byrne and George Koenigsaecker who not only knew the lean tools, they were teaching these tools to others. Art Byrne was already widely known as one of the original lean pioneers in the U.S. and had taken a small, struggling company that made electrical wire management products in Hartford, Connecticut and transformed it into an international powerhouse, increasing its value by 2,467 percent. George Koenigsaecker had a hand in successfully transforming 12 companies to lean thinking and has been called the “Johnny Appleseed of Lean” by IndustryWeek magazine.[3] These two were frequently on their shop floors, teaching others the tools of lean. Leaders I knew delegated such activities. To be fair, I delegated too. I was not immersed in the improvement activities. I might offer to help with a task – so long as someone came to me asking a question. But these leaders, they were out on the floor asking operators what help they needed. They were of service to the individuals, the organization and the customer. In short, these leaders were modeling behavior I had not seen before – although I had read about it in some of those Lincoln biographies.

In 1863, for instance, when General Robert E. Lee was holding the state of Virginia and attacking the north mercilessly from this stronghold, Lincoln sat down to write a letter of one of his generals in the field. Major General Joseph Hooker had been out-flanked by General Lee at Chancellorsville and forced to retreat just weeks earlier. In the letter of June 16, 1863, it is apparent that Lincoln is both trying to bolster Hooker’s flagging spirits and mediate a dispute between Hooker and General-in-Chief Henry Halleck when he wrote:

“As it looks to me, Lee’s now returning toward Harper’s Ferry gives you back the chance that I thought McClellan lost last fall. Quite possibly I was wrong both then and now; but, in the great responsibility resting upon me, I cannot be entirely silent. Now, all I ask it that you will be in such mood that we can get into our action the best cordial judgment of yourself and General Halleck, with my poor mite added, if indeed he and you shall think it entitled to any consideration at all.”[4]

Note how Lincoln places his opinions – and his ego – firmly in service to his generals, and the greater war effort. The more I read about leadership at Toyota during the great quality push in the 1950s and 1960s, I more I saw the same sensibility. Executives were constantly at gemba[5] looking to serve the greater efforts of the company.

At that first conference, I bought a book on value stream mapping and went back to Jacksonville, Florida with my team, looking to implement what we knew. With the full backing of Xomed’s board and executive team, my team and I set about recreating operations in the spirit of lean. Failure was my best teacher.

In those early, heady weeks, my team and I organized operations into value streams, looked at our available personnel and simply plugged people into roles. We did not ask people what they wanted or what they believed their strengths to be. It was disrespectful and a violation of the second characteristic of a lean leader. It was not long before our efforts were in disarray. We learned, however, and continued forward.

Later that same year – 1999 – Medtronic bought Xomed and I began learning the true value of purpose. Medtronic’s mission was to “Alleviate pain, restore health, extend life,” and these intentions were central to every effort. At annual gatherings, patients and families were flown in to talk with us about how Medtronic products affected their lives. I learned to serve the purpose first and joined more improvement teams – not as a leader, but as a team member, pulling together with my colleagues to improve lives.

As Medtronic’s lean work in Jacksonville became known, we hosted a lot of visiting companies and toured others in turn, always learning by example. I took trips to Japan to study leadership there and saw a level of trust between executives and operators that was unparalleled. In the best companies, people were not fired for poor performance. Instead, leaders saw it as their personal responsibility to find the best fit, job-wise, for the person. Poor performance was the fault of the teacher as much or more than the pupil. I also saw peer-to-peer disagreements that would get so heated as to nearly create fistfights. This was because nobody walked away in seething disagreement. Consensus was the goal.

Flying high over the Pacific Ocean after one such trip, I realized that the leadership style I saw at Toyota and other world-class Japanese companies mirrored that of Lincoln. In fact, I was reading Shigeo Shingo’s Kaizen and The Art of Creative Thinking, when I realized that he was a student of Lincoln, as well. In this book, Shingo tells a story from the Battle of Antietam, September 1862, just 18 months into Lincoln’s presidency. Lincoln had ordered General George McClellan – known for his reluctance to engage Confederate troops – to meet Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia before it could invade Washington D.C. McClellan was stalling, again, despite the fact that his troops outnumbered the Southern army.

“Lincoln was contemplating how he could break this stalemate when an anecdote from his childhood sprang to mind.

One day as a young child, he was having trouble putting on his long sock. Even though he was pulling hard, his feet would not go in smoothly and the socks kept snagging on his toes.

Seeing him struggle, his mother came to help him. She rolled his socks inside out, put his foot in one of them, and then rolled it up.

“What I need to do is reverse the socks,” Lincoln thought. He went back to his subordinate and said, “General, you said two in the defense is worth three in the offense. That means you can defend against the enemy with two-thirds of your troops. Therefore, I will give you 29,000 troops to be used for defensive measures here. The other 58,000 I will take with me and go on the offensive to disrupt the enemy.”

The timid General McClellan blanched at this idea and reluctantly set off to meet General Lee. In this way, Lincoln used the method of reverse thinking to solve his problem and break his stalemate with McClellan.”[6]

What struck me on that flight, reading this anecdote, was the way in which one great leader was still restlessly looking for inspiration from other great leaders. And the parallels between the two were staggering. Lincoln and Shingo both believed absolutely in going to where the action was, focusing their actions on a higher purpose, serving people, and telling stories to influence people instead of dictating behaviors. Lincoln went to battlefields, focused his efforts on preserving the union of the states, helping his subordinates achieve their best work, and spinning tales to illustrate his point. Shingo did the same. He just worked on a factory floor instead of the fields of history.

When I retired from Medtronic in 2011, I realized that I had been studying leaders – and stealing from them – for 30 years. While I had been giving presentations on leadership in a lean environment for nearly a decade, I realized that I had not taken the time to think deeply and organize what I had learned – to give back. This book is my attempt to do that.

Leading in a lean environment is fundamentally different than any other kind of leadership. Lean work requires that everyone have or develop a healthy dissatisfaction with the status quo. We encourage rebels. Giving orders runs against the grain, even though leaders must get everyone moving in the same direction. The lean business requires a different skill set from its leaders, who must be servants as much as spearheads.

In the style of Socrates translated through one of the great tools of the Toyota Production System, I have ended each chapter with five questions for the lean leader to reflect upon. These questions are similar to the “Five Whys,”[7] in which we attempt to scrape away our assumptions in order to see the root cause of a problem. Here, the questions are more often beginning with “How” or “When” than “Why” because we are not looking for a single root cause. These questions are tools to help leaders look deeper into their habits and motivations.

Like the stories from ten modern leaders contained in the chapters ahead, I hope that these questions will open new avenues of insight. The job of a leader is wider and deeper than I ever imagined at the beginning of my career. May your experience be deeper still.

This Introduction is an excerpt from Anatomy of a Lean Leader by Jerry Bussell, which is available for purchase from ul.com/books.



[1] Warren Bennis is the founding chair of the University of Southern California Leadership Institute and widely considered a pioneer in studies on leadership. Bennis has written 30 books and one of them, On Becoming a Leader, (Perseus Books, 1989) was designated by the Financial Times as one of the top 50 business books of all time.

[2] In 2002 Forbes named Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Free Press, 1989) one of the top ten most influential management books ever.

[3] Both Art Byrne and George Koenigsaecker have written worthy books on leading lean transformations. The titles can be found in the bibliography.

[4] David Acord, What Would Lincoln Do? (Sourcebooks, Inc. 2009) 124

[5] Gemba is a Japanese word that is used to refer to shop floors or any place that value is created for a customer, whether internal or external. Gemba means “the place where value is created.”

[6] Shigeo Shingo, Kaizen and The Art of Creative Thinking (Enna Products Corporation, 2007) 113-114

[7] Another tool of the Toyota Production System, in which a team considers a circumstance or defect and asks why five times – each question more focused – until the root cause is discovered.