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Front-Line Leaders: The Most Overlooked Role in Lean Transformation

Jan. 12, 2024
It's critical to train and engage the people who most workers report to and communicate with.

One of the greatest challenges when developing a lean culture is how to get everyone engaged in the continuous improvement strategy. As with any arduous endeavor, it’s beneficial to look for a few points of leverage that provide a disproportionate amount of impact.

Often, a great place to start is with front-line leaders, making it a priority to teach, coach and mentor them to align their behavior with lean principles and goals.

Why Focus on Front-Line Leaders?

In most organizations, most workers report to front-line leaders. So naturally, we should tap into front-line-leaders’ influence, preparing them for their lean roles and responsibilities.

However, in practice, this unfortunately is not always the case. Front-line leaders are often unprepared. And what compounds the issue is that typically, for a lean transformation to succeed, the most significant behavior changes must happen at the front-line-leader level.  

We haven’t done an effective job in setting front-line leaders up for success. To address this issue, it’s imperative that we have the right development goal for front-line leaders.

What Is the Goal?

Simply gaining front-line leaders’ passive buy-in or support of your lean strategy won’t create the motivating environment that we need. Front-line leaders must be leaders of the lean strategy; then, they can be catalysts for change and lead and develop their teams.

This does not at all minimize the need for lean leadership at every leader level of the organization through to the CEO, but it’s time to recognize the importance and impact potential that resides within the front-line leader level.

So, what are some specific ways we can deeply engage front-line leaders, who will then engage their teams—and provide the lean leverage to help us meet our goals.

Involve Front-Line Leaders Early in the Lean Transformation

Don’t delay in focusing on front-line leaders. Any lag in their involvement will increase their own concerns, confusion and fears, which will negatively affect their teams. Consider the following:

  • Provide early-phase training and coaching to front-line leaders. 
  • Involve front-line leaders in the lean strategy planning process. 
  • Give front-line leaders a role in the introductory workforce training. 

The above items are to get the front-line leaders on the leading edge of the transformation process. The extra time devoted to their involvement will be paid back many times over due to their span of influence.

The role and behavior changes are significant, as front-line leaders need to become lean teachers and coaches for their own teams. Improvement is part of the job, and the idea of focusing on the process may be foreign to some who are stuck in firefighting mode. These are just a few of the behavior changes that will take time to master, so any delay in front-line leader development will further delay their opportunity to lead and develop their teams.

Embrace Multiple Development Methods

Here are a few considerations regarding development approaches:

Training workshops - Personnel development for lean is not simply a classroom exercise where a workshop is completed and the front-line leader gets a certificate, thus ending the training and development process. Classroom training and workshops have their place in lean training, but they’re just one piece of the puzzle.

Application - Actual application of learning is the only way to embed lean behaviors and develop lean skills. Even classroom training should include application exercises if possible. Cycles of experimenting and continual learning are a never-ending process. Behavior change requires practice.

Coaching and mentoring - Since behavior change requires application and practice, we need to provide coaching and ongoing mentoring to front-line leaders to help them effectively progress through the learning cycles.

Benchmarking - Learning from other organizations that are further along on their journey can be extremely impactful, and discussing challenges with peers from other organizations, enlightening.

These are just a few development approaches that apply to the growth of any employee, though our focus here is on the front-line leader.

The peer-group format also has multiple benefits:

Grow Front-Line Leaders as a Peer Team

There are multiple advantages to having front-line leaders meet regularly as a peer team to learn and share experiences and challenges.

Clarity – Group discussions can provide more clarity and insight into the message everyone hears. Consider having the team participate in a “book club” where someone provides a summary of a few chapters and how they apply to the organization. Besides initiating discussion of key points, the presenter will develop communication skills in a “safe” environment.

Peer Influence - Peer influence can be a powerful motivator. For example, consider whether part of the session includes time to discuss improvements in each front-line leader’s work area. No one wants to be the one person with nothing to share.

Collaboration - A front-line leader team ideally could include internal suppliers and customers to strengthen connections throughout the whole value stream—an idea that may be foreign to someone whose focus in the past was solely their own work area.

Engage Front-Line Leaders in Redefining Their ‘Job’

People don’t usually resist what they helped create. Instead, they gain a sense of ownership, take pride in their effort and continue to make improvements. Power of ownership requires ongoing coaching and guidance to align with lean principles, but it should never be undervalued.

One approach would be to guide the front-line leader peer team in developing their leader-standard work. Provide templates, input and guidance, but engage them to be owners of the process. Do the same for the daily huddles. What do they feel would be the most effective meeting agenda? By having a hand in creation, they are invested in not only the adoption of these lean practices but empowered to continually refine and improve.

A true culture of continuous improvement strives to engage everyone in your organization’s lean strategy. By setting up front-line leaders for success, you’re making a huge leap in lean adoption and in developing the culture you need and desire. 

Dave Rizzardo is the associate director of the Maryland World Class Consortia. He co-developed the Lean Peer Group service, which helps organizations develop a lean culture. His book, "Lean - Let's Get It Right! How to Build a Culture of Continuous Improvement," addresses the root causes of why many lean transformations fail to meet expectations, and he provides the information needed to turn things around.

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