Develop Lean Leaders the Green Beret Way

May 29, 2012
Every member of the U.S. Army Special Forces receives extensive training. Their leadership training offers lessons to be learned by organizations embarking on a lean transformation.

For many organizations, it's a baffling development. They embark on a lean transformation with the best of intentions, but the effort fails to take hold. Initial improvements give way to backsliding and success seems out of grasp.

Don't blame the system.

It may be a lack of emphasis on training for lean leaders that is at fault, suggests Sam MacPherson, former chief of training for the U.S. Army Special Forces (also known as the Green Berets) and now president of the Lean Leadership Academy.

That isn't the case at Toyota Motor Corp., frequently cited as a leading example of a lean organization. Organizational leaders at Toyota are the main focus of training, says MacPherson.

Neither is it the case among the U.S. Army Special Forces, which MacPherson described as the ultimate team-based organization, but one populated by leaders.

"Every Green Beret is a leader," said MacPherson

However, they don't get there without extensive training, said the former training chief. Moreover, MacPherson says, Green Berets' leadership training offers lessons to be learned by organizations embarking on a lean transformation.

During an IndustryWeek webinar, MacPherson shared lessons learned from his experience both with the U.S. Army Special Forces and in manufacturing. Among the lessons he shared:

  1. Train senior leaders first. They must earn credibility, and they must know how to build a lean management system, MacPherson says. Senior leaders must understand that lean is "like a house," an integrated system in which one element is just as important as any other element.
  2. Train leaders to specific roles according to leadership needs. In short, don't simply provide training as lean managers, but also provide training to leaders in their specific roles in quality, human resources and supply chain, for example.
  3. Train leaders for their roles as lean transformation leaders, not "kaizen men," says MacPherson. Leaders must be able to step out on their own and speak about the lean transformation to customers, suppliers and others.
  4. Build people before things. It is important to develop the values, thinking and lean behaviors before learning the tools.

Once an organization knows what to train for, the question becomes, "How do you make it happen?" MacPherson shared practices that have proven successful in his training efforts. They include:

  1. Train as a cohort team. Train the lean transformation team as a group, MacPherson says. Not only does it provide a good opportunity for the senior leaders to see what the team is capable of, but it also helps to break down the walls that typically exist within organizations.
  2. Design training in which leaders can be successful only through synergy -- relying on all resources, including everyone's skills and creativity. "'Cooperate to graduate,' as they say in Special Forces," he quipped.
  3. Make lean leaders responsible for developing others, as well as the performance of others. In certain academic testing he provides, MacPherson says leaders have a "buddy," with both receiving the lower of the two test scores. It promotes working together, he says.
  4. Teach time-management skills. MacPherson says he has found it lacking among managers he trains. The training chief outlined a one-third/two-thirds time-planning principle in which leaders cannot consume more than one-third of available time for analysis and planning. Two-thirds must remain for teams to do their work and implement processes.
  5. Train using Training Within Industry principles such as Job Instruction and Job Methods
  6. Teach in the way adults learn. It is significantly different than how children learn.

MacPherson also suggested that lean leaders be trained for two levels above their lean leadership role. If they are a team leader, for example, then provide training for two levels higher than that. The reason is pretty simple, as MacPherson explains. Those leaders inevitably will work with others in higher positions and in other organizations. "They need to have the level of confidence," that comes with the advanced training.

In the hour-long session, the former Green Beret training chief provided a wealth of additional suggestions based on his years with the U.S. Special Forces -- as well as significant Toyota Production System training. To view the complete presentation, go online to The Green Beret Way to Build Lean Leaders. (Scroll down to 3 p.m. session.)

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