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What the Best Lean Leaders All Have in Common

by Tom Ehrenfeld
October 8, 2015

What the Best Lean Leaders All Have in Common

by Tom Ehrenfeld
October 8, 2015 | Comments (0)

In Lead With Respect, authors Michael and Freddy Balle argue that lean leadership is based on the practice of respect: a number of actions and principles that define the actions (not the proclamations) of those in charge. The struggles of their main character to make this so reflect the fact that practicing authentic lean leadership on a daily basis requires an almost magical blend of human qualities.

Table stakes for being a good lean leader are a mastery of lean methods and principles. Beyond that, the promise is realized when coupled with the personal chops needed for success. I’ve had the privilege of visiting the gemba with several experienced (and in my opinion, exceptional) lean leaders, and want to add a few observations on how these individuals engage their people through a deeply personal approach to gemba interactions.

They listen

Bart, a tall, imposing man with a big laugh, turns completely silent when he’s out on the floor. I know how many other companies he’s helping turn around, how many other crises are calling him at this very moment. Yet when we are on the gemba at a hospital, standing side to side with nurses sharing their flow chart for maintaining useful equipment, Bart is fully present. No visible cell phones, no handlers, no distractions. His full attention is on the work and the workers, not the unit boss. Only after the presentation ends does he focus on the details that have been shared and push back on fine details about discrepancies in leveling that he has noticed. He can engage at a deep level with fine understanding because he is fully present with those he is working with.

They challenge

Rob, who is leading lean as a consultant with a long-term engagement, gives assignments to individuals with the clear expectation that when he returns, the homework will be done, and the subsequent meeting will be an opportunity to review the results—and respond accordingly. “If standard work has not changed as a result of what we did at the meeting, then nothing has happened,” he says. Folks at this company get nervous when Rob’s date approaches; yet they diligently do their homework and look forward to his tough inquiry.

They are all about the Work

In this great column, John Shook shares a powerful Taiichi Ohno quote that was said when Ohno was coaching an executive: "Your problem is that you’re trying to think of something to teach the people at Daihatsu. You don't need to teach them anything. What you need to do there is help make the work easier for the operators. That's your job." A great leader realizes that the goal of all their work is to help employees do their jobs better.

They generate wisdom

Just like cognac is distilled from wine, the best lean leaders are able to distill wisdom (meta-knowledge) from the knowledge generated from PDCA learning. They ask questions that tease out the problem and offer support to the problem’s owner. While they are concerned with the content of the solution they are simultaneously pushing the worker to recognize the deeper problem. Tina, a low-key yet deeply impressive leader, is as intimate with the details of her people’s standard work as her people themselves. When the plan deviates for any reason, she helps with course corrections by asking the individual what went wrong. She asks, with humility, “How can I help you?” And above all, she steers the inquiry towards learning and reflection. Which recalls another Ohno quote from The Birth of Lean: “Anyone can gain knowledge through study. But wisdom is something else again. And what we need in the workplace is wisdom.”

They connect on a human level

Or in other words: they care. They pair the hardware components of rigorous lean tools and methods with the software element of heart, compassion, and caring. It’s not enough to know the technical elements of leading others in lean; the few genuine lean leaders I’ve observed have a gift for connecting with those whose work and growth they are supporting. They animate a mastery of lean technical know-how with a clear and present commitment to the people doing the work. It’s hard to fully define this quality, yet easier to recognize when you see it (hello Tracey Richardson). Call it what you want—charisma, mojo, heart. It doesn’t have to be showy; it just has to be real.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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