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Encouraging signs on lean leadership

John Shook
12/13/2012
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Exploring the world of "lean coaching" with over 200 of our closest friends last week at the Lean coaching Summit in Orlando, there is no questioning the essential nature of coaching as a core skill of lean leadership. If lean is a matter of learning new skills and even mental models, learning lean is a "learn by doing" or experiential learning process. And if lean is an experiential learning process, coaching is THE skill to enable more effective, more efficient learning of lean thinking and practice.  It's a skill that all lean leaders need to acquire – and that we'll explore further at our annual Lean Transformation Summit in March.

Lean leadership according to Art Byrne

Leading through lean thinking sometimes creates conflict. Consider even the way that leaders often feel forced to make a choice that seems essential at the time. Take time to develop people or push product out the door? Take time to develop people or develop people to take time? Stop to do root cause analysis or patch the leak and keep on sailing? Even when such trade-offs don't present themselves so explicitly, leaders are often stymied when they feel the need to narrow their focus and give up one aspect of lean practice to make progress on another.

But, in fact, lean practice is not about this question of "but" – lean is about the "and." Frontiers AND fundamentals, for example. Tools and management. Technical and social. Yoked together at the workplace. Fortunately there are some encouraging trends regarding the way people are talking about lean as a complete business system. A new book, The Lean Turnaround, by veteran CEO and lean legend Art Byrne, sheds light on leading lean as an integrative role. By sharing how he has lead the introduction of lean practice in more than 30 companies (including the famed tale of transforming Wiremold), Art shares his view of how lean operates as a complete business system—a comprehensive way of leading (and managing).

From doing lean to being lean – it's a system

Art's book is timely for its emphasis on the way lean operates as a complete business system. Once you start (and where you start, and with which tool you start, depends on where you are and what your problem is), then you find that everything must change—become lean—for any work to take root and generate further gains. Reducing inventory and boosting flow will force your sales force to rethink its opportunities and incentives; and will cause your accounting system to throw out standard assumptions about what to value. As Art says, "Lean cannot be just one of 10 elements of your strategy. It must be the foundational core of everything you are trying to do; that is how it becomes your culture. Don't just do Lean; be Lean." Embody lean thinking to solve business problems and make things better for your customers.

This approach reinforces a belief of mine about lean leadership—that many of the cries for "strong leadership" are misguided. What's needed today are NOT heroic figures who make great inspiring speeches. The essence of lean leadership is not who the leader is and what image he or she projects—the issue is about what leadership practice  accomplishes  the aim, the purpose, of the business.  Any system that relies too heavily on charismatic "leadership" is inherently fragile, and all-too-dependent on the individual who happens to be in charge today. The real issue is how leadership builds systems that are the operational result of disciplined lean practice—a problem-solving culture that creates continuous improvement that delivers business results while always solving better customer problems.

You cannot separate management, or leadership, from work, or the content of the value-creating work of the business. Lean starts (and eventually starts again) with the fundamentals of how you work at a micro-level detail. You can't, as many theorize, separate leadership in some abstract notion from that place of work. Leadership is integrated into the work and not overlaid onto it. And yet many prevailing conceptions of leadership fail to grasp this simple but essential truth.        

Herman Miller

Herman Miller Facilitator Dawn Lowry listens intently to a team member on the Aeron line.

On the floor … Saving half a second at Herman Miller

Recently I was able to observe operations at a Michigan factory of Herman Miller and was excited by what I saw from the team that has been practicing lean thinking for 15 years. The team I observed was assembling the famous Aeron office chair. I saw a vibrant example of a problem-solving culture characterized by individuals who have a clear line of sight to the goals of the business, deep knowledge of the work and how lean practice applies to improving it, and enthusiasm that is sky-high—all of which leads to a very successful business and ultimately delighted customers.

The team was working enthusiastically to shave a half-second from their work cycle to meet the takt time of … 17 seconds. The team was working with its facilitator/leader in a thoughtful set of experiments to save that half-second. The team facilitators were working hand-in-hand with the operators, providing expert coaching to help them think of new ideas right there in the moment at the gemba.

Any observant visitor could see how this kaizen mind started at this micro level of work and extended throughout the plant. The material handlers were working at a pitch ten times the takt time, making their delivery rounds precisely every 170 seconds. Line-side inventory was minimal – if they are late, the line will stop because the workers will have no parts. . A nearby yamazumi board was used for weekly reallocation of work elements that were being improved daily. Just like they write in the text books – except better.

Did I mention that the team was working to save half a second?

Herman Miller

Facilitator Dawn Lowry adjusts a yamazumi board.

But what really excited me about this hotbed of problem-solving was not merely the satisfaction one gets by observing people making tangible improvements in their immediate work. You could see how these engaged team players were thinking hard about how to spread their gains to the next level up. That this attitude was a deeply engrained part of the culture—that leaders were guiding this focus on improvement to strengthen the capability of the overall plant. That they were getting each person to take initiative that was aligned with company objectives.

And this represented the essence of transformational leadership for me: these team leaders (in their words) were not, ultimately, solving problems—but developing problem solvers. And they did so not through blind trust, or by giving orders, or fixing defects: they did so through a mindful presence at the gemba which developed the skills and capabilities of their team.

This type of leadership takes place best when you know the work itself. And such an approach contrasts sharply with many prevailing views of leadership.

Lean leadership – it's all that

Lean leadership in this respect focuses on creation of that problem-solving culture in which each member is engaged as entrepreneurial owner of his or her challenges. Shaving off half a second.  Reducing work-in-process. Making injuries a thing of the past. At issue is the role of leadership in attaining the ideal lean enterprise. What role does leadership play in the creation of the system? How do you achieve that? Leadership has a dynamic role that should adapt to different circumstances, depending on the problem to be solved. Art Byrne describes the role of leadership to establish a complete enterprise and the sometimes dramatic action that is required for that. The Herman Miller example demonstrates the actualization of problem-solving culture comprised of relentless lean practice. Above all the objective should be to establish a system that is not dependent on any individual. As the organization matures, the role and behaviors of the leaders may change as do the problems and challenges themselves.
           
John Shook
Chairman and CEO
Lean Enterprise Institute, Inc.
jshook@lean.org

PS: Join us with Art Byrne and Ken Goodson, executive vice president of Herman Miller, at our annual Lean Transformation Summit where we will explore lean leadership and other dimensions of transforming enterprises.

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