Home > The Lean Post> Advice from the Gemba: Top Mistakes Lean Leaders Make I
The Lean Post
Sharing how the world is making things better through lean.

Advice from the Gemba: Top Mistakes Lean Leaders Make I

by Alice Lee, Jim Luckman & Sammy Obara
April 18, 2017

Advice from the Gemba: Top Mistakes Lean Leaders Make I

by Alice Lee, Jim Luckman & Sammy Obara
April 18, 2017 | Comments (9)

Alice Lee (Executive Director, Strategy and Administration, Lean Enterprise Institute)

I’ve found that leaders tend to think they have to have all the answers, and that tendency is no different on gemba walks. The point of a gemba walk is to “Go and See (and listen),” but I’ve seen leaders struggle with the “See (and listen)" as they are more comfortable with “Do (and tell).” That can be extremely uncomfortable for them, to have to watch all these mistakes happening right in front of them and not be able to do anything to correct them. I see it happen over and over again as a lean coach.

Over time I realized that I needed to do a better job of setting the stage for learning and determine the purpose with the leader in advance, so no one would be caught off-guard. Before we set out, we would discuss the importance of leaving preconceived notions behind:

“You don’t have to have all the answers. You’re going to see problems, you’re going to see things that might make you nervous, and you’re going to want to jump in and fix it. 

"But I need you to just go in with a questioning and nonjudgmental mindset and think, ‘What is actually happening? What am I actually seeing and what do I now know? What else do I need to know and how will I learn it?’”

I want the learner to be present in the moment and listen to the voice of the gemba and truly grasp the situation.

We, as leaders, have become accustomed to drawing conclusions with “facts” far from the gemba and so acknowledging this is not easy and takes mindful guided practice and discipline as the first step to deeper learning. 

Sammy Obara (President, Honsha Associates)

Leaders sometimes think that by copying Toyota tools they will automatically obtain Toyota results

I’ve had my share of situations where companies were introducing tools like Kanban (a random example of a popular tool), because they saw that “Toyota uses them everywhere.” Perhaps the question that comes before “How do I use it?” should be “Why do they use it?” Kanban is the typical case where Toyota created a solution for a problem they had, but that many other companies don’t have. And, by extension, they shouldn’t be using that same solution.

This explains why we often see companies using this artificial method created by Toyota to connect their processes (again, artificially), instead of doing it physically. There are some constraints that could justify the adoption of the same tools that Toyota uses. A Kanban, in this case, could be used as a last resort, when processes are difficult to connect – rigid and different cycle times, multi-shared processes and physical restrictions are good examples. Regardless, it’s important to remember that lean is not a one-size-fits-all approach, and what works for Toyota may not work for you.

Jim Luckman (Partner, Lean Transformations Group LLC)

The biggest problem I see is that lean leaders think of lean as a new program, like Six Sigma or Culture Change. There are many articles showing that a program approach does deliver the expected outcomes and yields about 70 percent failure rates. Generally, the program approach adds additional work on top of the existing work and creates additional overburdening of the existing workforce. Often, the Lean program is delegated to an internal continuous improvement group and the leadership practices and the existing systems are not challenged. Additionally, Lean programs are spread across organizations without connecting to the critical business problems that need to be addressed.

The program approach is what I have called “doing Lean.” The more appropriate approach is to think of Lean as a new process of experiential organizational learning. I have called this process “becoming Lean.” Included in this process are how to define problems, how to engage the entire organization in addressing problems at their level, and how to create an ongoing and continuous process for more effectively serving value to the customers. 

Since this learning process is foreign in most organizations, it needs to be developed and grown from within through selected areas based on definition of business needs. Starting with small experiments where people are solving their real problems, new problem solving and social skills can be created. When this is done properly, a new social system emerges based on trust and respect that yields a more effective operational model. With the leader focused on how the organization is responding to these experiments, she can encourage a higher level of problem solving at the systems level, which includes looking at the existing policies and leadership behaviors that need to change. This is a model of multi-level learning that not only can create extraordinary performance improvements, but also create a culture that is continuing to improve.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  fundamentals,  gemba,  leadership,  management
Was this post... Click all that apply
44 people say YES
40 people say YES
27 people say YES
38 people say YES
Related Posts
9 Comments | Post a Comment
Juan Peeceflow April 18, 2017
2 People AGREE with this comment

Maybe the headline should be about mistakes "Fake Lean Leaders Make" or "So-Called Lean Leaders Make?"

Reply »

Daniel T Jones April 18, 2017
2 People AGREE with this comment

All of these are the result of the prevailing strategic logic of the mass production age - Michael Porter insists on separating strategy and planning from execution and operations - saying the latter is about buying best practice from wherever it is cheapest. This leads to leaders used to hiring experts to solve problems for them - such as designing better processes for others to work in. Which is further compounded by an outdated view of strategy and planning and a flawed decision making logic based on fast thinking and forcing through implementation ignoring the facts on the ground - something the military learned years ago does not work.


The challenge for the lean movement is to articulate a more productive leadership from the ground up growing capabilities and using a very different decision making logic. And to do this from the perspective of the CEO or CFO rather than as experts in lean operations. This is the challenge we seek to address in The Lean Strategy out in June. 

Reply »

Norman Bodek April 18, 2017
1 Person AGREES with this reply

The Japanese are noted for their ability to copy and then make it better. They sent tens of thousands of people to America after world war II to copy.  They did it very well and then improved it. We in the West have copied from Toyota but rarely are there any examples where we are better or even equal to Toyota. We have thousands of Lean consultants but do they really know what they are doing? We tend to implement the Toyota tools but miss out totally on the spirit.  Who for example knows how to develop people to their fullest capability?  We should stop teaching Lean and start to teach companies how to become the best in the world. Apple has done it.  Others should follow.

Reply »

Anonymous April 20, 2017

Good points, but what is Apple best in the world at doing? Best at making money? Best at the stock price going up? 

Reply »

Anonymous April 20, 2017
1 Person AGREES with this reply

It would be great if people were tying to copy Toyota. Far too many "Lean" or so-called "Lean Sigma" efforts have ZERO connection to principles that made Toyota successful. That's a huge problem.

Reply »

vasu April 21, 2017
2 People AGREE with this comment

These are good examples. The point we need to bear in mind is how the coach works with these leaders. The key aspect is LEAN is achange in mindset and one has to beleive and immerse oneself in the philosophy.

If it was considered as a "flavor of the month / year" it will go nowhere....

Leaders need to be active listeners then going to Gemba makes sense...


Reply »

dan prock June 26, 2018


Isn't becoming lean as you describe it a focused form of servant leadership?

Reply »

dan prock June 26, 2018


Isn't becoming lean as you describe it a focused form of servant leadership?

Reply »

Steve Cochran February 27, 2019
1 Person AGREES with this comment

In reading all three segments I recognize experiences from my own 25 year old journey.  The top article by Alice Lee is particularly appreciated.  The idea of taking people on a Gemba walk to teach them something I find difficult.  To take a Gemba walk to learn something I find enlightening and enjoyable.  

All three were articles that I will share.

Reply »

"Too Busy to Walk the Gemba"
How Can Lean Fit Into Industry 4.0?
Please include links as plain text URLs only. Do not copy and paste directly from a web page or other document. Doing so may pick up additional HTML that will not function here.
URLs will be converted to functioning links when your comment is displayed on the site.
Here's an example:
See this article for more details: https://www.lean.org/whatslean