What if Lean was your way to Leadership ?

To the question « What does prevent Lean thinking from being sustained in many companies », Dr Jeffrey Liker -one of most famous Lean authors- answers : « In one word, Leadership ». Which kind of Leadership is thus required to make it happen, and how does this relate to traditional Leadership approaches ?


1- Lean approaches focus more and more about Leadership.

When the word Lean started to be deployed in 1980s and 1990s , the focus was on the tools, what to do. Then progressively, the way to deploy the tools started to appear in the 2000s, and for the last decade, starting around 2005, focus has been put on Leadership, culture, values, management, coaching. The two main reasons are the following:

  • When James Womack and Daniel Jones put the term ‘Lean’ on their transcription from TPS -Toyota Production System- in their best seller ‘The Machine that changed the world », they did not insist on the human and cultural dimension since they focused on describing the visible and explicit changes.
  • Majority of TPS and Lean deployment from 1990 up to today have been failing due to the lack of Leadership at all levels of the organization. Industry Week 2008 indicates 74% full failure rate, and Shingo Prize more recently refers to 85% failure rate.

Jeffrey liker formalized a Lean Leadership model on 3 dimensions:

  • The first dimension confirms the convergence strongly shared values within Toyota culture: Challenge, Kaizen-problem solving mind, Go and see on the shopfloor, Teamwork, and respect.
  • The second dimension deploys these values through Lean tools, which gives them their true meaning and purpose while activating pragmatic results: A3 for problem solving, standards and visual management for continuous learning and focus.
  • The third dimension ensures the operational Leadership on 4 axis at all levels: be engaged to your self development, coach and develop others, support daily kaizen and create vision to align goals.

This leads to a complete continuous improvement cultural leadership model:

Jeffrey Liker also refers to Mike Rother’s ‘Toyota Kata’ coaching approach. This is a pragmatic operational process in 4 steps, with 5 relevant questions, using visual management tools:

Jeffrey Liker and Mike Rother are certainly not the first to speak about the Leadership core to a successful transformation. A continuous improvement eminent figure having focused on Leadership is Edward Deming, notably in his book ‘Out of crisis’. All current continuous improvement experts agree to confirm that everything about Leadership in continuous improvement has already been said by Edward Deming. Referring either to 14 management principles and to the System of Profound Knowledge will give you the right directions to succeed.


2- On the other side, more Leadership experts also speak performance and results

Leadership and coaching are traditionnally conveyed through HR processes. HR are in charge to develop people’s talents through Leadership trainings, and for top talents, individual coaching and steering comittees team building.

The difficulties of Leadership trainers and Professional coaches is to sell results by engaging to these results. They are committed to the means, not to the results, which is part of the origin of lack of recognition from operational and most executives of these required services. Some leaders authors however have tried to fill the gap, following are some interesting examples:

  • Greg McKeown in ‘Essentialism’ takes back the philosophical concept from Plato and Aristotle to make it very pragmatic in a very Lean Leadership efficient manner.
  • David Allen has provided through his bestseller ‘Getting Things Done’ an accessible way to get priorities easily performed at any level.
  • Steven Covey, after his bestseller ‘The 7 habits of effective people’, wrote ‘Principle-Centered-Leadership’, in which he clearly linked the 14 Deming principles to Leadership keys.

However, this remains limited to certain activities such as prioritizing, focus on values, dealing with relationships. This does not provide a complete operational Leadership on all activities within a company. For this concern, clearly yes, the Toyota Lean Leader or Coach provides a very pragmatic Leadership on the shopfloor, oriented towards continuous improvement, thus results. The Lean Leadership coaching is a great way to make sure Leadership grows and delivers higher performance, visually and at all levels !

However, it is very unlikely that this Toyota Lean Leadership work in a culture different from Toyota company. Because this is based on the Toyota shared values and well deployed culture. As General Electric had in 1990-2000 a very strong Six Sigma culture driving the company to highest performance scores, Toyota is using this asset inside its company to leverage leadership through TPS or lean tools and system. A majority of their Master Black Belts and Black Belts having left the company have initiated waves of Six Sigma and Lean Six Sigma transformation in other companies, with a very low success rate sustainability after several years… As well as for Lean, same rootcauses from a strong culture, same consequences of non sustainability.

We then need to have a Leadership or professional coaching expertise to find the way to arise the continuous improvement culture within the company either before or at the same time as the deployment of a Lean transformation. Otherwise this will surely fail.



3- How to integrate this Lean Leadership in your Organization ?

Integrating the Lean Leadership is a great opportunity to combine Leadership and Results altogether thanks to the Lean tools and system. Here is a 3 mandatory steps process to make it happen:

First on the continuous improvement shared values. Your company values cannot be Toyota’s ones, because these values are based on the founder’s values, and the current executives values and the orientation of the company. This means to ask questions about current values, and deeply relate these ‘new’ Continuous Improvement Values to current company . Doing this work will drive you towards defining the related behaviors you are willing to deploy at all levels in your organization. For more elements, you can see our blog article on Lean Culture (http://www.essence-leadership.com/how-to-consistently-build-a-lean-culture)

Second, perform a pragmatic shopfloor based Leadership development program. Instead of performing only Leadership trainings at Management and Executive levels –which you still need to perform, find a way to enhance Leadership at operational level. This is were you have talents unused, which represent the company most important waste. To perform this, you do not need conventional Leadership trainings –you surely do not have the time and the money to do it. You can however embed in every shopfloor activity, including the managers as team members, a way to recognise and develop their own leadership, way to deal with issues and tasks. By focusing on their issues, enhancing continuous improvement shared values, every visual management, standard, problem solving is a way to raise each leadership.

Third, build effective coaching process skills. Starting in parallel of step two of operational Leadership development, find the type of Leadership coaching style you need to develop. This combines both the operational related dimension linked to shopfloor activities developed in Lean tools and a more professional coaching dimension. Then, identify the right managers, leaders that will develop these skills as ambassadors to develop themselves progressively other internal coaches.

A Lean transformation is a truly great opportunity for a company to enhance its way to its unique Leadership, internally, and relating this Leadership growth to its direct results and operational Continuous Improvement. This has to be done by integrating the company all dimensions and assets from its uniqueness, with the relevant internal and external expertises.[