Getting lean right, it’s often observed, depends on practicing it for the right reasons. This was reinforced by 18 CEOs I interviewed in February for my upcoming book (title TBD). The experience also renewed my optimism about the future of lean.
There’s a bit of a backstory here. When I began researching The Lean CEO a few years ago, I was on a quest for “best practices” of CEOs who were widely acknowledged to have led successful lean transformations. I figured they’d reveal a common roadmap for lean success – at least, that’s how I pitched the idea to my publisher.
It turned out, however, that the leaders varied considerably in their leadership styles, strategies for introducing lean methods, and even the roles they played. There was no common roadmap.
On the other hand, the leaders were surprisingly consistent in their beliefs about value creation, continuous improvement, and the need to engage every person in the organization. Lean for them was a people-based countermeasure for the challenges their organizations were facing, and an alternative to the arcane hierarchical management system they had inherited. So, it was the “why” that really stood out.
The CEOs I interviewed in February represent a newer generation of lean thinkers. All are Young Presidents Organization (YPO) members whom I contacted through my friend and YPO member Karl Wadensten, represent small-to-medium sized manufacturers, and are in early stages of their lean transformations.
My questions to them, therefore, were not about how they succeeded, but why they started, and what initial barriers they were facing. Their answers reflected what one could call “pre-lean thinking,” that is, a set of beliefs that lay the groundwork for lean adoption. Here are the themes that stood out:
- Have Enduring Commitment: The CEOs showed a commitment to the long-term future of their organizations. Some had inherited generations-old family businesses and felt it was their duty to grow the company and hand it on to future generations. Others had a strong desire to build something sustainable and enduring.
- Keep a Shop-floor Focus: They did not sit in their offices and take their frontlines for granted but felt that it was the CEO’s responsibility to be an active steward of value creation at the gemba. It was only natural for them to spend their time and attention there – some were even surprised when I asked why they were doing this.
- Harness Intellectual Capital: They believed the current business environment is far more complex than it looks on paper, and distrusted forecasts, algorithms, and fixed strategies. To survive, they felt, their companies had to continuously evolve, requiring the brainpower of every person in the organization.
- Engage Everyone: They showed a strong disposition towards collaboration and teamwork - trusting workers to innovate seemed natural to them. When I asked a CEO if he had fear of losing control, he said, “Oh, that’s old school.”
- Be a Humble Leader: They were willing to accept the challenge of leading resolutely while openly acknowledging that they didn’t have the answers. This, they seemed to agree, is the most difficult aspect of leadership.
The point is, the CEOs were thinking in these ways before they began their lean transformations. For them, lean fit like a glove, because the “pre-lean” thinking was already there.
Business conversations outside of the lean community (e.g., sustainability, people-centric management, criticism of short-term shareholder value) suggest that many people, including upcoming leaders in large organizations, are beginning to think in ways that are compatible with lean. My hope is that a growing number “pre-lean” thinkers will usher in a new era of lean leadership.