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Lean Won’t Work if Leadership Won’t Change

Aug. 23, 2022
Too often, the messaging is mistakenly centered on employees using the tools-in-a-box provided to change their own behavior.

If someone asked you for your “elevator definition” of lean, what would you say? The answer you’d give is a product of the messaging you’ve heard with respect to lean over the years. 

Rick recently got into a discussion about this issue with a small group. Several of the group were experienced lean practitioners; others were new to the field. The discussion didn’t go well. We found that there was a nearly unbridgeable chasm between the “new to the field” participants and the more experienced lean practitioners. That gap became clear in an exchange that went like this: 

New to the field: “The lean message needs to be one that attracts senior leaders.”

Experienced practitioners: “The lean message needs to make clear to senior leaders that their current leadership style is the source of their problems, at least in part. If they don’t change their approach, they can’t implement lean successfully.”  

 The “new to the field” group felt that it’s important to point to the improvements to company performance that lean can provide. They also argued that it would be vital to be able to describe the “lean tools” (e.g., takt time, Six Sigma, Eight Wastes, etc.) that lead to enhanced performance. We call this the “tools and results” message.

The “lean practitioners'' countered: “Leaders can do a web search to find evidence of results and the tools don’t really matter that much.” 

You can begin to see why the discussion didn’t go well.  

Reflect, for a moment, on just how long the “tools and results message” has been around. And yet, the number of manufacturers that have implemented lean successfully is relatively small. There’s something wrong with either the message itself or the way that managers are hearing it. Both are probably true, but our group’s discussion provides a bit of evidence that the message itself—that lean is a set of tools that, when properly applied, can provide significant improvements to company results—is part of the problem. 

The “tools and results” message takes as a given that leaders get uncomfortable reflecting on their own shortcomings with respect to creating a culture that supports continual improvement. Too many managers are committed to sustaining the privileges and benefits of leadership rather than really exploring how their organizations might benefit from changes to their own approach to leadership. As such, they find more attractive the message that lean is something that their employees will be doing differently (using tools to get results) rather than something they themselves will be doing differently.  

In our article published here last year (Lean Tools are For Managers, Too), we provided several examples of the misuse of lean tools that comes from leaders’ reluctance to change their own behaviors.  Bad implementation is a result of bad messaging.

The current “tools and results” message prompts leaders to ask, “What performance improvements can I expect to see as a result of the lean initiative?” But that’s the wrong question. A better question would be, “How does my own approach to leadership hinder continual improvement, creative thinking, effective problem-solving and innovation?” The challenge is to get senior leaders to ask that question. And that requires a different lean message.

Another problem with the “tools and results” message is that it leads managers to believe that they can outsource their own commitment to leading the necessary culture change. Not long ago, Ron spoke to a business owner about taking on the position of continuous improvement coordinator for the owner’s manufacturing plant. The fellow had already hired a lean consultant, so Ron asked the man what he saw Ron doing for the organization that the owner and the consultant couldn’t already do. The man replied that he didn’t have any time to devote to a lean initiative because he was too busy fighting fires. Ron turned the position down. The “tools and results” message led that owner to believe that he could hire someone to implement the tools and his business would realize good results, without having to be involved himself.  

The best lean message shouldn’t be designed to attract leaders who are reluctant to reflect on their own leadership approaches. Rather, the best lean message forthrightly conveys to leaders that the manner in which they lead their organizations must change.

Rick was asked recently for examples of how leaders need to change. He responded that, among other things, leaders' calendars and daily schedules should change. If leaders are spending their time in the same way after the launch of a lean initiative as they did before, they’ve listened to and bought into the “tools and results” message. And their lean initiatives will fail.  If, on the other hand, leaders’ schedules show more “going to the gemba” time, they’re on the right track.  That time can be used in many ways, including:

  • Walking the plant floor and starting conversations with operators,
  • Checking in with the members of the team that’s putting together a value stream map to see if they need any help,
  • Talking with other leaders to find out how they are supporting the lean initiative. 

If leaders wait until they “get a moment” to devote to those activities, those initiatives will never be carried out. They need to be on the leaders’ calendars.

As part of one of Ron’s most successful lean deployments, a senior leader took part in a kaizen team including the final presentation. That leader had no other responsibilities that week apart from participating in the kaizen project. When senior leaders work directly with the people who make the products customers want, they learn what people expect of them and how they need to exemplify the message.

A successful lean implementation happens only in the context of significant culture change in the organization. If that message makes a leader uncomfortable, he or she isn’t ready to embark on the lean journey. If, on the other hand, the leader recognizes culture change starts with changes in their own behavior, they’re ready.

 Ron Jacques is a 35-year veteran within the lean, manufacturing and consulting arenas. He is a Certified Lean Practitioner who has delivered hundreds of kaizen and transformational solutions to clients and companies within the Pharma, Medical Device, Automotive, Food/Beverage, Electronics, Military Defense, Personal Care, Consumer Durables and Capital Equipment industries.

 Rick Bohan, principal, Chagrin River Consulting LLC, has more than 25 years of experience in designing and implementing performance improvement initiatives in a variety of industrial and service sectors. He is also co-author of People Make the Difference: Prescriptions and Profiles for High Performance.

About the Author

Rick Bohan | Principal

Rick Bohan, principal, Chagrin River Consulting LLC, has more than 25 years of experience in designing and implementing performance improvement initiatives in a variety of industrial and service sectors.

Bohan has a bachelor of arts in psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a master of science in organizational development from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. He has published articles in National Productivity Review, Quality Progress and ASTD's Training and Development Journal. He is also co-author of People Make the Difference, Prescriptions and Profiles for High Performance. Bohan can be reached at [email protected].

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