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Out of Fertile "Pre-Lean" Soil Bloom Lean Leaders

by Jacob Stoller
May 1, 2018

Out of Fertile "Pre-Lean" Soil Bloom Lean Leaders

by Jacob Stoller
May 1, 2018 | Comments (5)

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.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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5 Comments | Post a Comment
Michael Ballé May 01, 2018
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Fantastic post! Thank you Jacob for sharing your experience - this is indeed very similar to what we find in Europe. Motivation to create value, grit, a willigness to learn the nitty-gritty of the tools on the gemba and a genuine intent in developing their staff, one by one. As well as a no-nonsense pragmatic mind.

And yes, completely agree, the lean CEOs I know thought that way before lean, and find in lean/TPS a structured method for people development that balances short term wins, which they need for the business and credibility, with long term gains in competitiveness.

As lean thinkers and writers, we need to take your points to heart and think about how we can support both the bigger picture and more detailed understanding of what the tools are supposed to show where.

Thank you for that check list - we can all measure ourselves against it!

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Daniel Jones May 01, 2018

I agree with Michael. One thing to add was that the CEOs whose stories we tell in The Lean Strategy went through a kind of personal ephany in realising that they could not delegate lean but had to personally lead it themselves -often by seeing consultant driven lean failing to engage people. 

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Jacob Stoller May 01, 2018

Thank you for the kind words, Michael. It is interesting, although not surprising, that you are seeing this kind of pre-lean thinking in Europe.

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Martin Riedel May 01, 2018

Hi Jacob 

I am in the final stage of my Henley MBA , I want to investigate how one can prepare an organization for starting the lean journey - I have seen serval lean approaches fail because leaders think it is a plug and play solution, I read through you artical and was delighted to read it, do you have any recommendations on how to prepare an manufacturing company for pre- lean activities? 

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Jacob Stoller May 01, 2018

Hi Martin, I agree that there is no plug and play solution, and I'm glad you found the post helpful. However, I don't have an quick answer for your question. The best thing I can suggest is to keep reading, and seek out the best leaders and learn from them. What you learn from them may be very different from what you learned in school.

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