Lean Leadership

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On my gemba walks I often get comments and questions about leadership.  “We can’t seem to get anywhere because we don’t have any leadership.”  “Who should lead the lean transformation?”  “Is a ‘lean’ leader different from any other type of leader?” I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I have been thinking about this issue for many years so I thought I would share what I’ve learned.

First, I say to anyone who asks about leadership:  “It begins with you.  And it makes no difference who you are or where you are in your organization.  This is because lean is a fractal concept which can be applied to any stretch of any value stream.  So why don’t you draw a quick map of the value stream you are involved in and ask what needs to be done to make it flow more smoothly?  Then take responsibility for making something happen.  That’s what lean leadership is.”

I always start here because I suspect that I’m being asked to forgive the mess I’m looking at.  “Since my boss doesn’t have any interest in doing the right thing, I bear no responsibility for doing the wrong thing even though I know better.”  But I’m not buying the premise.  In a successful lean enterprise, everyone takes responsibility for the value stream they participate in.  Everyone needs to be a lean leader.  And that means you, whoever you may be.

This said, I’m quite aware that change must take place at many levels.  To quickly lean an entire business, a top-level leader must take the responsibility and launch a kaikaku campaign.  (kaikaku is simply the Japanese term for revolutionary change in an organization, in contrast with the more familiar kaizen that involves evolutionary change.)  We call this person the change agent and I hope your organization has one or even many.  In addition, technical assistance will be needed from a lean promotion team.

But kaikaku is just the beginning and sometimes the easiest part.  I’ve seen far too many organizations setting out on bold campaigns, mapping their core value streams in every aspect of the business, and getting dramatic short-term results with help from the lean promotion team.  But they assign no one the responsibility for sustaining and improving each major value stream.  (That’s the kaizen part.)  They may introduce a “plan for every part”, as Toyota managers do for the parts used in production, but they have no “plan for every value stream”, much less anyone taking responsibility for each stream’s continuous improvement.  The lean improvement team may come around whenever there is a major problem, but value stream performance soon regresses to where it was before the campaign.

Sustaining and continually improving the value stream is the job for the value-stream leader, who may also be the product line manager if your activity lends itself to clearly defined product families flowing through the organization.  Toyota’s chief engineer is a nice example.  This person leads his product through the value-creating process while collecting information on how well the process is performing.  This permits him to lead periodic process improvement activities in cooperation with the other chief engineers and with the heads of the functions touching the product such as product engineering, prototyping, manufacturing engineering, purchasing, and operations.

So as you think about lean leadership in your organization, ask if you have a top-level change agent.  If you do, this is wonderful and you should be able to make rapid progress.  Just be sure that once you’ve won the war on muda you maintain the peace by making someone responsible – that is, a lean leader – for every value stream.

If you don’t have a top-level change agent, you have no excuse to do nothing.  Instead, take responsibility for the value stream you work in.  Define what value is, map the process, get everyone to look at it together and ask how to make it better, and do this again as soon as you make some progress.  You’ll be surprised at how desperate the people around you are for leadership and how eagerly they respond if you take the leadership role.  The trick is to get everyone to focus together on the value stream rather than glaring at each other and assigning blame for problems.  Don’t wait for the authority to do this.  Just muster the courage to step forward and take the lead.

My colleague John Shook is fond of saying that it is easier to act your way to lean thinking than it is to think your way to lean acting.  And that’s equally true of lean leadership:  It’s easier to lead your way to lean thinking, starting wherever you happen to be, than it is to think your way to lean leading.  And what’s really muda is simply sitting there waiting for someone else to lead.

With high hopes for your becoming a lean leader,


Jim Womack
President & Founder
lean enterprise Institute

P.S. We are doing our best at LEI to lead the Lean Community, which we often do by bringing lean thinkers together to share experience, raise consciousness, and generate enthusiasm and courage.  Our next outings are the Lean Summit Mexico in Monterrey, May 23-25, and the Lean Business process Summit in Boston, June 8-10.  The Mexican event is designed to bring together all lean thinkers in Mexico at a critical point in Mexican development when working for low wages is no longer good enough to guarantee success but working lean can be.  The Boston event is our attempt to apply lean principles to every process in every business, going far beyond our starting point in manufacturing operations.  I hope you will mark those dates and register as we open the events at www.lean.org.  I’ll be speaking in both Monterrey and Boston and I hope to see a large turnout from the Lean Community.

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