The Vital Piece in Lean Transformation: Lean Leadership

By: Heather Fraizer, Training SpecialistHeather Fraizer

One of the privileges of our job at Training Services is that we get to work with so many diverse companies and organizations. We meet each organization where it is and help it to improve and grow. Over our years of helping people to implement lean, one thing that has become clear is that a lean transformation cannot happen without the leadership being fully involved and a key driver.

This is not to say that one cannot start on the lean journey without top leadership support. In fact, for many organizations, their lean journey might start in a variety of places in the organization – the front line, an innovative team leader or middle manager, or even someone in the executive suite. That being said, I would argue a full lean transformation cannot occur or be sustained without the deep engagement and support of the executive team.

Here are some of the key things lean leaders can do to support a lean transformation:

  1. Engage the whole leadership team in creating and communicating mission, vision, and a strategic plan. Patrick Lencioni’s recent book, The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business, is a great resource for the importance of creating and communicating a shared vision and plan. Last fall I wrote about Hoshin Kanri, lean’s version of strategic planning. You can read that article here.
  2. Learn lean principles and spend some time working with lean improvement teams to see first-hand how lean works “on the ground.” There is nothing more frustrating than being sent to lean training, developing great plans, getting a team on board, only to hear “no, that won’t work,” from a leader who has no training or understanding of lean principles. Some principles in lean are extremely intuitive, while others are not. It will be difficult for a leader to support their staff in experimenting and engaging in Plan-Do-Check-Adjust if he or she is not familiar with the principles they are trying to implement. The best way to learn is by doing. So we encourage leaders to get their feet wet and hands dirty and work on a lean project shoulder to shoulder with team members.
  3. Lead using metrics and data. The leadership team should have their Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) which are visible, checked regularly, and lead to problem solving. Set the expectation that all departments and teams also have metrics that are visible and checked regularly. These metrics should be aligned with the annual plan and prompt problem solving.
  4. Set a good example. Everyone is looking to the leader when things get tough on the lean journey; if the leader falters, employees will too. While undergoing a lean transition, the leader and his or her team need to be the most committed and persistent. As challenges arise, which they will, the executive team should problem solve, debate, engage fully, remain unified, and communicate clearly. One of the hardest things for organizations to overcome is a history of “program of the month.”

Over the last ten years, researchers and practitioners of lean have started to shift focus from an exclusively “tool-based lean” toward lean thinking, lean culture, and lean management. This acknowledges the fact that organizations can have a variety of lean tools in place but still not fully capture the true benefit of being a continuously improving organization. Lean leadership and management has been identified as the primary gap that was missing in our earlier understanding of lean. We invite you to begin to think about the role of lean leadership principles in your organization.

On Friday, June 12, 2015, Darrell Rogers will be facilitating a book discussion about The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership by Jeffrey Liker and Gary Convis. I encourage you to read or listen to the book and join us for this important conversation. Additionally, if you are interested in customized support in this area, please contact me at hfraizer@nmc.edu or (231) 995-2200.

Heather Fraizer
Training Specialist
(231) 995-2200
hfraizer@nmc.edu

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