I have been openly critical of American management and leadership. In my last column, you read my thoughts on a new style of leadership I call lean leadership. It requires that leaders exhibit behaviors not always listed as the most important leadership/management skills in much of the literature and often not taught in the MBA programs of even the leading colleges and universities, and frequently not part of the management recognition and rewards programs in many companies.

One such skill is the ability to teach. I don’t just mean teach the theory but teach the theory as well as the application of the lean tools. In this regard, I often get questions about teaching some of the lean tools. However, these questions often expose a lack of understanding of the very nature of the lean tools.

In this column, I am going to address one such question that addresses the very nature of lean. It is: Aren’t some of these lean skills incompatible?

Contradictory or Not?

Some lean tools, when compared one to the other, appear to be contradictory or incompatible in nature. For example:

  • How do we standardize processes and yet teach our people to be creative? Standardization involves rote repetition; creativity involves continual change. They appear to be an “either-or” or mutually exclusive proposition.
  • What about the concept that we are striving for perfection yet we have a high tolerance for mistakes that naturally accompany the process of experimentation?
  • What about the biggest contradiction? All of our efforts are focused on driving out variation, yet we are to promote a culture of continuous improvement that at its core requires continual change. No variation, yet continuously change? That concept challenges us all at some point in time.

This is one of the great barriers to lean implementation: Concepts of lean are both counterintuitive and counter-cultural. Hence, if you wish to be a lean leader, you must go back to the basics and make sure you have a clear understanding before you are able to teach others.

That means you need to first understand how these concepts are not incompatible. In fact, they are more than compatible -- they also are complementary and synergistic. You need to go deeper than the commonplace definitions that are often culturally driven and not adequate to define the lean concepts.

Frequently this deeper understanding comes about through a paradigm shift. And when you understand the shift needed, it is much easier to both understand and teach these concepts.

Let’s go through one example to explain away the “seemingly incompatible” nature of these concepts and show how they are not only compatible but complementary as well.