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How demanding can a lean leader be while remaining respectful of staff?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

How demanding can a lean leader be while remaining respectful of staff?

You’re standing on a logistics platform filled with half-packaged crates being readied to send to customers, overflowing shelves, dismal working conditions, and the warehouse manager is telling you that all is fine. Creating a truck preparation zone, he says, is simply impossible in his situation because he’d never get the right information from the system.

Or you’re standing with a service team and the manager explains that checking every customer complaint can’t be done because customer complaints are not formally recorded and agents are far too busy with their jobs to spend time writing stuff on wall paper.

In these situations, how demanding do you have to be?

Being respectful means first not dismissing people’s difficulties but making the utmost effort to figure out the problems they mention and their origins. Without visual management in place this is often hard because these conversations are awkward and often misleading, which is why the first step to Gemba activities is to “clean the window” and set up some visual management and boards for comments so these discussions have a basis in fact rather than being spot opinions – and charged feelings.

Being respectful means coming back regularly to check progress as opposed to issuing orders and then moving on. The second part of being respectful is making a real attempt at building a relationship by “go and see” again and again. Yet, as a manager, this poses a serious problem when no attempts at change can be seen. You can only help people if they first help themselves and move. When they do nothing (or worse, the minimal possible to make an empty gesture but not seriously try their hand at what you asked), you need to be demanding – or give up.

Thirdly, at each visit being respectful also means to repeat both the problem you’re intending to solve and the first step you’d like them to take. Never assume they’ve correctly understood, particularly at first before visual management makes the situation clearer. Very often people will simply not understand why you’re demanding a clearer workspace; they’ll feel this is extra work on top of all their troubles. This needs to be clarified and explained again and again. Once the barrier of basic visual management is broken, observations and discussions typically improve rapidly and so do relationships.

2 Obstacles Ahead

Nevertheless bear in mind that as a leader, you’re likely to face two unavoidable obstacles, one psychological – some people can be good at what they do but find learning too challenging - and the other sociological – the status quo will always defend itself:

  • Psychology: Psychologist Carol Dweck distinguishes fixed mindsets, people who believe abilities intelligence and talents are fixed traits, from growth mindsets, people who understand their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching, and persistence. The goal of fixed mindset people is essentially to look smart all the time and never look dumb. Growth mindset people are more tolerant of looking foolish and likely to continue to work hard despite setbacks. In lean transformations, fixed mindset people feel especially attacked because they are often challenged by their boss in front of an audience (worse of all, their own staff) and are not given an easy answer to make themselves look smart – they unfortunately often come to hate the Gemba visits.
  • Sociology: Never underestimate the pushback abilities of leadership’s status quo. When you demand improvement on the Gemba, you are likely to upset the balance of power between functions. visual management will reveal problems and will show that the causes are often a part of the organization no one has looked at before. As you get frontline staff to sort out the warehouse, for instance, don’t be surprised if the ERP manager or the finance director starts fighting back at some point. Why would they be concerned? Well, pretty quickly cleaning the window will reveal that much of the mess is due to the computer system, which is run by a staff function that wasn’t challenged (or really concerned up to now). Start scratching that itch and the function will defend itself.

Being demanding is a large part of lean leadership and, to be honest, in most cases, all goes well and people respond. Very often, they feel liberated by getting permission to try stuff and finally see a hope of solving their problems. Still, it’s a fact that a few will feel very threatened and, consciously or not, will do what they can to derail your efforts at change – sometimes successfully. Chances are there’s always one in ten who throws up a fuss, makes tantrum and will accuse you of being disrespectful in your very requests.

They often have a case because, particularly at the start of the lean work, exchanges can become heated and get out of hand as tempers ride high. In my experience, anger and argument is not an indicator of either will or skill. Some people will get hot under the collar quickly, steam up, and argue and yet try something immediately and change whereas others can be all smiles and never do anything. Still, if, as a leader you return time and time again to the same area and nothing substantial has changed, the conversation will be increasingly charged.

Being respectful means making sure people can succeed to the fullest of their abilities. You can change someone’s position or ask them to move on respectfully if you feel that, after several attempts, they will never thrive in the workplace you’re trying to create. Such a move is always tricky because every one else is watching and often doesn’t quite know how to interpret it, but, so far I’ve not see any lean turnaround without some changes in management teams. Every company has an established process to let people go and you can do this respectfully.

Your #1 Job

True, on the Gemba, the answer one gets more often every time one tries to push one step further is “it can’t be done.” Or “not possible here, here’s why…” The difficulty as a lean leader is indeed to keep cool in the face of being told “no” all the time and accept that friction is a normal part of the job – this diminishes as people progressively get more comfortable with continuous change, but it always remain to some extent as low hanging fruit are gathered and real problems become increasingly hard.

Therefore, yes, if we ask people to learn we should also challenge ourselves in asking every time whether we were being too demanding and whether there could have been a more respectful way of handling the situation. The answer is always clear: we could have done it better, every single time.

Still, on balance, the key is also not to be too hard on oneself and accept that, as a leader, your first job is to teach people to change. Yes, you need to learn to do this as smoothly as possible because any mistake creates further pushback, but leadership comes first. The day the leader stops being demanding, improvement simply stops. Being demanding is putting fuel back into the improvement engine. Doing so respectfully is a day-to-day learning challenge.

1 Comments | Post a Comment
John Hunter March 9, 2015

A big problem we have (at least in the USA) is the opinion some people develop that respect has to do with not making anyone uncomfortable.  That isn't respect that is creating a dysfunctional mindset.

What you say is well put. We need to have high expectations and expect that people will rise to the challenge.  And if people can't (with help and good systems) we need to find them a new position at which they can excel.  Babying people isn't respectful to them or everyone else.

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