At some point in our careers, most of us have had the dubious pleasure of working under a leader who does not model the behavior that he expects to see in his or her team. As a continuous improvement change agent, I coach leaders to lead by doing because actions speak louder than words. This element of coaching is about focusing on the importance of becoming the change that they want to see in others. Successful leaders are open to change, strive to be engaged learners, and by modeling behavior – set clear expectations. People follow their leaders, consciously or unconsciously. What the leader demonstrates as important is what the team will focus on.
In Lean, an integral part of leader standard work is continuous learning. The book People by LeanCor addresses this directly: “[M]ake learning part of your [leader] standard work and stick to it.” Not only should the leader be looking for every opportunity to coach future lean leaders, they must be open to learning themselves. This principle applies to the “experts” in Lean and continuous Improvement as well! This being said, imagine what type of message it sends if a leader in continuous improvement demonstrates a reluctance to change or improve?
In the past, I’ve witnessed the repercussions of leaders who, while claiming to be a change agents, were the first ones to be the road-block for their team. The inevitable result was the team ceased to improve, bring forth new ideas, and languished in the victim-cycle. Many simply left this no-win situation and moved on to more collaborative environments where they could utilize this positive energy for improvement. Sound familiar? Most people have encountered this situation on some level.
Here’s the problem. Change isn’t typically welcome (even by the change agents themselves). Interestingly some of the most avid change agents can be, by contrast, some of the most resistant to personal change. Creatures fond of organization and standardization; a few will fear change as it disrupts their sense of order. I see this in my colleagues often and it concerns me that we are ultimately sending the wrong message to those we train in Lean and continuous improvement. On the other hand, if we open ourselves up to learning, we internalize and personalize lean thinking for ourselves. As Danielle Blais shared to in her amusing article, “How Lean is Ruining my Life,” as we immerse ourselves in lean principles and a different approach to work, lean thinking begins to shape who we are as individuals. As Danielle began to absorb lean principles, she started to “see the waste” everyday, everywhere, all around her. This intriguing transformation into becoming a lean-thinking individual changes our perspective and ultimately, our behavior. Or rather, one hopes it does.
Some continuous improvement professionals may only pick up on the lean tools and excel in their careers by “doing lean” and not “becoming lean,” a topic Jim Luckman has written about on the Post. This is an easy trap to fall in to as many organizations fail to truly be lean companies and merely repeat a cycle of practicing lean tools without focusing on the social and cultural elements that impact continuous improvement sustainability. Luckman explains this well: “We know from experience that Lean is fundamentally driven by a change in company culture, not a methodological ‘application’ of the Lean tools.”
It’s important to understand the difference in behavior between doing and becoming lean and be able to adjust our perspective onto the more sustainable path. As continuous improvement and Lean further permeates into organizations around the world, we will be confronted with this curious dilemma again and again. How do we distinguish between simply playing at lean through the utilization of lean tools and lip-service to continuous improvement – and actually becoming an integrated continuous improvement culture that fully appreciates lean principles? As leaders, how do we embody lean thinking ourselves, even when change is challenging?
We must be self-aware. This is more challenging than it sounds. If we are to be the change we wish to see and model the behavior we teach, we must be cognizant that we are not sending the wrong message by our actions. We may define ourselves by our intentions, but others define us by our actions. The change agent being resistant to change is ironic, but it’s a serious thing as it can be detrimental in the long-term. For me, this brings to mind the words of Andy Andrews: “While it is true that most people never see or understand the difference they make, or sometimes only imagine their actions having a tiny effect, every single action a person takes has far-reaching consequences.”
Don’t underestimate the power of your own influence. Even if you do not personally hold a leader’s title. I maintain that everyone is a leader in their own right. Your influence will extend to your peers, your friends, your family, and those you work with. Be careful that you, the change agent, do not suffer from CRS: “change resistant syndrome”! We are all susceptible.