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Ask Art: What Does a Lean Manager Do Differently?

by Art Byrne
August 5, 2014

Ask Art: What Does a Lean Manager Do Differently?

by Art Byrne
August 5, 2014 | Comments (1)

Lean managers lead and behave in a manner that is completely different than what most of us consider the traditional manager. And this difference can be seen at the very beginning—with the vision of where they want to take the company.

Let’s assume that both traditional and lean managers have some form of vision or objective. The similarities will in most cases stop there. The traditional manager’s vision (or objective) will likely fall into one of two categories: maintenance, or growth.

I’ve seen many traditional managers who rise to the CEO position of a company that someone else has built and feel that their main goal or strategy is to “maintain” the company’s position and current growth rate. They focus on cost cutting and maintaining market share. They avoid risk. They tend to ask “who” instead of “what” when something goes wrong.

The other type of traditional manager goes in the direction of “growth”. They have a big vision of where their company will be in the future. Their focus is more likely on top line sales growth and acquisitions. Sure, they may cut some costs but their main belief is that a rising top line can cover up a lot of sins. They tend to be the ones who start price wars to gain market share—often with disastrous results. They are also the ones looking for big flashy acquisitions. I guess this feeds their “captain of the universe” sense of themselves. Unfortunately, they often pay way too much, don’t get the expected synergies and then a few years later sell the acquisition to someone else at a big loss.

The lean leader on the other hand has a completely different type of vision. He is inspired to create a lean turnaround because he’s seen first-hand the results other companies have achieved as a result of their lean conversions. Toyota is sort of the “mother of all motivators” for the consistent gains it has achieved over long periods of time. But plenty of other companies that might be easier to relate to have achieved great success as well.

The lean leader understands that in order to get great results over time he must deliver more value to his customers than his competitors can. To do this, first he must work with his team members to remove the waste from the organization's own value adding activities. His vision focuses heavily on improving all of the processes in the company. He understands that this in turn improves the work environment for all his employees. By reducing the time and cost to do everything and by engaging every employee in the work of eliminating waste everyday, he build great teamwork and eventually, a lean culture. His expectations of how great the gains can be will far exceed those of the traditional manager. This vision and his commitment to achieve it helps him motivate employees.

The lean leader has a vision for growth just like the traditional manager, but he sees the source of growth quite differently. Growth comes from a combination of providing the customer with higher quality, shorter lead times, and better customer service. It also comes from rapid new product development as a result of first removing the waste from this process and linking all parts of the organization to the product development process including “the voice of the customer.”

The lean leader doesn’t shy from acquisitions either. The process is just completely different from that of a traditional company. The newly acquired company is managed lean from the start. For the acquired company, it may feel like a lot of pressure to match the metrics of the existing companies but the acquired company also gets a lot of help and guidance. Culture change happens quickly, so the chances for error [a failed acquisition] will virtually disappear. At Wiremold, for example, it was pretty common for us to get the entire cash cost of an acquisition back in about three years.

The lean leader’s vision for driving a successful turnaround is always based on the question: how high is up? (And in fact, how can we exceed this?)

The traditional manager may see this as an “inward focus,” but the lean leader understands it’s just the opposite. Delivering the most value to your customers starts with continuously improving your own processes. 

This post has been adapted from The Lean Turnaround Fieldbook, to be published by McGraw-Hill in 2015.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  leadership,  management
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1 Comment | Post a Comment
Carlos Kalamar August 11, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this comment
To became a lean leader is not hard, but is good to be prepared to face a huge chalenge, change the culture is one thing that don't depend of only one person, first of all you have to find the right persons to assembly your team and after that begin the lean journey, there is no other way, if you want success you have to start think and breathe lean.

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