Home > The Lean Post> The Courage to be Lean
The Lean Post
Sharing how the world is making things better through lean.

The Courage to be Lean

by Joanna McGuffey & Thomas Richert
February 26, 2020

The Courage to be Lean

by Joanna McGuffey & Thomas Richert
February 26, 2020 | Comments (1)

“Courage is the main quality of leadership.” – Walt Disney

When we look to understand how enterprises, beginning with Toyota, sustain lean practices we find that they have a culture of shared leadership and responsibility with courage at the forefront.  Cultivating that courage, regardless of role and position, in a deliberate manner accelerates and strengthens the resilience of a lean transformation.

Today, three observations inform the need for courageous leadership in team-focused work.

  • People need to have trusted personal connections with each other.
  • People desire to align with a purpose that is personally meaningful.
  • There is a need for courage to contribute wherever possible and ask for help whenever needed.

Putting these observations to work is key to cultivating a team culture of shared leadership and responsibility as a foundation for exceptional performance, along with the time and financial savings lean practices promise.

Trusting Personal Connections

Humans desire connection; a bond with other humans that inspires growth, vision, and purpose.  We long to know we make an impact where we live, work, and play. That impact can be stiffled if we do not feel safe or that we matter. Trust is the foundation for meaningful connection. Connected teams promote an environment for emotional safety, creativity and candor.  According to this Harvard Business Review article, trust also impacts the bottom line. “Compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies report: 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives, 40% less burnout.”

Satoshi Hino's terrific book Inside the Mind of Toyota notes that one of five precepts that inform the identity of the Toyota Motor Company is to “always strive to build a homelike atmosphere at work that is warm and friendly.” Home is where we ideally have our most personal relationships. Home is a safe space where one feels welcome. A place where you know there will always be room for you to share the meal experience with those around the table. The precepts were written in 1935 and reflect the philosophy of Sakichi Toyoda. It was within an environment that promoted personal relationships that the Toyota Production System (TPS), the primary source of lean practices, was able to take hold and flourish. A less personal, and more transactional approach to relationships at work would have killed TPS before it could really begin.

Aligning with Purpose

A meaningful purpose is not what you are doing or how you are doing it. It’s why your team is doing anything in the first place. When teams do not know why they are doing what they are doing, there is a tendency to disengage due to lack of ownership and passion.  We have a hard time aligning with something when our gut doesn’t say, “THIS is why.”

Grit doesn’t exist without the development of, and intentionally checking into, a meaningful statement of purpose. Teams within enterprises that work together regularly need to develop their own specific statement of purpose that has meaning for the individuals on the team and reflects their specific responsibility to the larger enterprise.

The first of the Toyoda precepts, originally translated as “always be faithful to your duties, thereby contributing to the country and to the overall good,” is a statement of purpose. The purpose of Toyota, and later TPS, was to elevate the people of a nation. Building and selling automobiles for customers was a means toward realizing that purpose. Managers going to the factory floor to see the work, waste reduction, and process improvement are simply a means to a meaningful purpose that was the foundation for TPS at Toyota.

The Need for Courage

The work the past few decades on psychological safety and the need to be vulnerable by people including Amy Edmondson, Patrick Lencioni, and Brené Brown highlights the value of being courageous in the workplace, along with the rarity. Fear keeps people from doing what they know is in the best interest of all.

People in charge of organizations are often afraid to speak out about what they don’t know and cannot do. There is a mistaken leadership ideal that believes leaders are forceful, all-knowing, and able to solve any problem, simple or complex. Admittance to a lack of knowledge can be viewed as a sign of weakness. This perspective informs an image of many leaders that is harmful to authentic trust and communication. It is an image rooted in fear. Over the years our fear of failure or looking bad strips away our natural confidence, resulting in less risk-taking and a lack of support for our fellow team members. Courage not only feeds a joy of learning but promotes a culture of authenticity.

The early years of Toyota are hardly heroic in terms of accomplishment, or even production efficiency and lack of waste. Yet there was the courage of people in the company to persevere despite discouragement and setbacks. When the company was founded in 1935 it was widely believed unreasonable that a Japanese company could compete against General Motors and Ford. The challenges were technical, economic and social. The initial courageous spirit of the company found a home in Taiichi Ohno, who understood deeply the need for managers to quickly admit when they were wrong, and for all people working in the factory to take responsibility for improving production.

Putting the Courage to be Lean to Work

We propose four steps for cultivating courage within a work culture:

  • Open conversations about the need to cultivate courage in leadership, beginning with yourself and the people with whom you regularly work. What is leadership to your team, and how can you share it so that everyone’s strengths come into play? What is courage to your team, and how do you cultivate it among yourselves and with other teams?
  • Understand yourself and the other people on your team. We each have core identity capable of contributing to others in a significant way. Often, we discard parts of our core identity, pretending to be someone we are not. In this way we may play the compliant employee or all-knowing boss – both roles inconsistent with a lean culture. Reflect on how you show up to others when you are your best. As a team share those reflections with each other. Doing so starts to cultivate team cohesion through personal relationships that serve as a foundation for mutual care and trust.
  • If it does not already exist, identify an inspiring purpose for the overall project or organization. Ask all teams supporting the enterprise to achieve clarity on their shared purpose. Expect that they will need have a long and serious discussion to develop an initial draft statement of purpose that stirs people emotionally and cultivates a mood of positive expectation for the future. Request that your team keep that statement of purpose visible and top-of-mind daily.
  • Request that each team create a shared core identity that includes some aspect of the individual core identity of each member of the team and aligned with the team’s statement of purpose. Through discussion and negotiation this shared core identity should be developed into a story that informs how each member supports the team.

The need for all people to share leadership in a courageous manner is real for meaningful work, and an essential part of every ongoing lean transformation. Focusing on the four preceding steps, not just once but consistently throughout the life of the enterprise, will result in more meaningful and joyful work while producing exceptional performance and results.

Keywords:  coaching,  culture,  leadership,  Purpose,  respect
Search Posts:
Kaizen Express
By Toshiko Narusawa and John Shook
Lead With Respect
By Michael Ballé and Freddy Ballé
November 21, 2018 | 3 Comments
Was this post... Click all that apply
13 people say YES
15 people say YES
16 people say YES
13 people say YES
Related Posts
1 Comment | Post a Comment
Heela Shafaq February 27, 2020


Reply »

Search Posts:
Kaizen Express
By Toshiko Narusawa and John Shook
Lead With Respect
By Michael Ballé and Freddy Ballé
November 21, 2018 | 3 Comments
How Purpose Shapes Culture
Intentional Respect
Please include links as plain text URLs only. Do not copy and paste directly from a web page or other document. Doing so may pick up additional HTML that will not function here.
URLs will be converted to functioning links when your comment is displayed on the site.
Here's an example:
See this article for more details: https://www.lean.org/whatslean