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Lean Business-IT Integration, Part Four: The Lean Learning Leader

Bell, Steve
7/30/2012

As I prepare to write the fourth article in this five part series, I have reached a significant milestone. Last week the final edits to my new book, Run Grow Transform, were completed. It will publish in early September. I’m grateful to many people for this effort, in particular Dan Jones, founder and chairman of the Lean Enterprise Academy, for an insightful foreword exploring the meaning of a value stream in the context of business and IT integration.

I’m reflecting on what I’ve learned in this past year visiting with leaders across a variety of industries during the research and development of this new book. Regardless of their role, CEO’s, CIO’s, and others who lead a transformation agree: the key to sustained success is not found in specific lean tools and techniques but in nurturing an environment where continuous learning, improvement, and innovation become part of the habitual behavior, and thus the culture of the organization.

Such a transformation is not accomplished as a top-down effort directed by management, nor as an outside-in effort driven by skilled consultants. Sustained lean results are founded upon an inside-out evolution, sparked by a genuine sense of shared purpose. This requires the catalyst of leadership in the truest sense of the word.  It also requires changes to how we manage and make decisions.

Lean Leadership at All Levels

Let’s begin by reflecting on leadership. In traditional management thinking, executives and senior managers are often viewed as the leaders. Yet leaders and leadership must be present throughout a Lean Enterprise. The late Dr. Stephen Covey reminded us that “leadership is a choice, not a position.”[i]

Lean leadership—at the senior executive and manager level, and within teams—seeks to maximize the inspiration and contribution of every individual and team in every situation, every day. To achieve this we must understand motivation. In the bestselling book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink demonstrates (with plenty of scientific evidence) that traditional “if-then” reward systems often have a contrary effect on motivation and creativity. He describes three factors of truly outstanding teams: purpose, autonomy, and mastery. Purpose is the reason why the work is important. Autonomy enables the team to determine the best way to do the work. And mastery creates an environment where people can fully develop their skills with a sense of pride and achievement.

As lean leaders, how do we let go of the strong grip of traditional command-and-control behavior so we can help teams become purpose-driven, autonomous improvers and innovators? First we must accept that we may not always know “the answer” – which is uncomfortable to many in a position of authority. In some situations we may know an answer based on what has worked before, but the team may be able to discover a better one, given encouragement and support. In fact, in situations that lead to real innovation and transformation, we should count on the fact that the answer is not known, and may not even be knowable. Rather than being “knowers” we must become continuous “learners” through thoughtful experimentation, actively searching for problems and opportunities in our daily work. In our unpredictable technology-driven world, any particular competitive advantage is short-lived; the ability to adapt to constant change and uncertainty through experimentation (plan-do-check-act or PDCA) is the key to long-term success.  

One of the most important roles of the lean manager is to serve as a coach, encouraging front-line team members to seek out new knowledge, explore new approaches, engage with and learn from colleagues across value streams. Modeling a leadership style of “learner and coach” rather than “knower and decider” encourages front-line workers to practice this same approach, encouraging learning in their own interactions with peers and colleagues throughout the enterprise, and in collaboration with their customers and business partners. In this way, teams increase the value the customer receives while also developing their own capability, cross-functional knowledge, and leadership skills.

For enterprises beginning the transition to a lean management system, as well those more mature in their lean journey, creating a culture of leader-as-learner within teams is vital for continuous improvement and innovation. For front-line workers coming from traditionally managed organizations, the lean approach of openly identifying problems and being responsible for experimenting and problem solving (rather than being told what to do), may initially feel uncomfortable and disorienting. Also, junior or less experienced team members may feel reluctant to express ideas. Similarly, technologists lacking in business knowledge, and business colleagues not versed in technology issues and jargon, may be reticent to express opinions or educate their colleagues. Yet all of these scenarios represent opportunities to improve value and innovate as these individuals see with “new eyes” and bring fresh perspectives and experiences to their teams and the enterprise.

Growing IT Value

What does this approach to lean leadership mean when IT is involved? It means gathering everyone within each enterprise value stream, including the technologists that contribute to its performance, together to see the flow of value – the line of sight to the customer. In my experience, those enterprises that are able to consistently exploit the value of emerging technology have developed this sense of integration, collaboration and teamwork among business and technical colleagues.

Transitioning to a “learning leader” also involves changes to how decisions are made. Leaders who have invested in their teams’ understanding of purpose, autonomy, and capability benefit from more informed, effective and often faster decision making, made as close as possible to the work and the customer (the gemba). This applies to strategic decision making as well, and it is here that we can realize significant gains in IT value. In traditional enterprises, IT governance is usually tied to annual budgeting and long portfolio and project management cycles. Yet here’s the paradox of traditional IT governance: striving to control risk through rigorous planning and control increases that risk. As Mike Rother demonstrates in Toyota Kata, the only way to effectively manage uncertainty is through step- by-step experimentation, validating each step and planning the next, always moving towards a shared vision of the future.

If we want to drive innovation, our business and technology colleagues must work with this uncertainty through rapid cycles of thoughtful experimentation (PDCA), rather than attempting to control it through more planning, spreadsheets, status reports, and meetings. This is the powerful lesson that the Lean Startup community has discovered. As leaders and managers we must nurture an organization capable of rapid cycles of collaborative and validated learning, visualizing and spreading our knowledge broadly throughout the enterprise. Such innovative organizations naturally enable cross-functional and cross-disciplinary learning among business and technology colleagues—helping technologists better understand the business needs, and helping business colleagues better understand the opportunities and constraints found in the rapidly evolving capabilities of IT— leading to clear purpose, faster learning, and less risk.

To help this diverse team of business and technology colleagues grasp the situation and learn in the face of complexity and uncertainty, I have found it helpful to use some form of visual management (such as kanban) –not on a computer screen, but on a wall using sticky notes and markers. Once the team learns to see the situation, they can identify, quantify, and eliminate the waste, defects, and obstacles to flow. However, grasping the situation in a visual manner can be messy at first, particularly in an office or IT setting where the flow of work and the availability of capacity is not physically evident, the systemic variables are complex (e.g. the underlying architecture and data structure) and often multidimensional (e.g. where one IT change may affect other applications and processes). The best way to create effective visual management is through experimentation by team members, supported and encouraged by management.

In the age of open innovation and virtual teams, the term “Lean Enterprise” has taken on a whole new meaning as we learn to collaborate and experiment with global partners, with our existing and potential customers, and the marketplace at large, creating new and often disruptive products, services, and business models. Continuous and collaborative learning across value streams has never been more important than it is now, as IT capabilities have become a vital driver of innovation and strategy for many enterprises, with the increasing importance of mobility, social media, big data analysis, cloud computing, software as a service, and other significant trends.

Since the Lean Enterprise Institute was founded 15 years ago, we have learned that the mastery of particular Lean tools and techniques may lead to temporary improvement, but ultimately an organization’s behavior and culture can transform only when leaders learn to suppress their need to know the answers, and help others learn to see opportunities and solve their own problems, striving together towards a shared purpose that inspires daily continuous improvement and innovation. 

Links with relevant information about lean information technology:.

Steve Bell is a member of the Lean Enterprise Institute faculty, the author of Lean Enterprise Systems: Using IT for Continuous Improvement (Wiley, 2006), co-author of Lean IT: Enabling and Sustaining Your Lean Transformation (Productivity Press, 2010), recipient of the 2011 Shingo Prize for Research and Professional Publication, and Run Grow Transform: Integrating Business and Lean IT (Productivity Press, 2012). He is the founder of Lean IT Strategies, a lean leadership education and coaching firm, and Lean4NGO, a non-profit community dedicated to bringing Lean practice to humanitarian organizations.



[i] Stephen Covey, “Shingo Prize Award ceremony report,” Huntsman Alumni Magazine,

Fall 2009, 12.

Lean IT
Steven C. Bell and Michael A. Orzen