Dan Ariens Ariens CEO

Ariens: Seven Skills of a Lean Leader

April 23, 2013
Ariens’ unique path to astounding its customers has taken the firm on a lean journey, one the manufacturer of lawn mowers, snow blowers and other types of equipment has been progressing along for the past 15 years.

Passionate people. Astounded customers. Those are the promises of manufacturer Ariens Co., said CEO Dan Ariens during a Tuesday keynote presentation at the 2013 IndustryWeek Best Plants conference.

Ariens spoke about lean leadership during his luncheon address, “Lean Leadership. Learn. Develop. Sustain,” but began his talk with reflective words.

“Does your company really matter?” he asked the audience. Would customers suffer a loss if your doors closed?

For most companies, the answer likely is “no,” he said. Recognizing that, companies must set the bar high, providing value to customers in a way that is uniquely their own.

Ariens’ unique path to astounding its customers has taken the firm on a lean journey, one the manufacturer of lawn mowers, snow blowers and other types of equipment has been progressing along for the past 15 years.

Interestingly, however, Ariens’ lean journey is not a manufacturing story, said Ariens.

“When we started our lean journey, it was never about manufacturing. It was about business,” he said.

Ariens’ lean journey was about business in that Ariens Co. was suffering significant cash-flow issues when Dan took over the CEO reins in the late 1990s. It still is about business in that lean is prevalent throughout many of the company’s processes. It is not limited to shop-floor operations, Ariens says.

During his luncheon speech, the Ariens CEO spoke to the audience of his belief that while CEOs must lead a lean initiative, “it is just as important to build leaders at every level to sustain” the effort.

To that end, Ariens shared what he described as seven balance points of lean leadership.

1. Servant leader. Servant leadership is being both a coach and a player. “If you are a CEO, you truly have to know what it is like to walk in the other’s shoes. That’s servant leadership.”

2. Relentless change. “The journey never ends, and we must be learning forever,” said the CEO.

Ariens shared several stories to illustrate this point. For example, by 2004 the company had been engaged in lean for many years, with significant “heavy lifting” for more than three years.

“At 2004 we had come a long way since 1998,” he said. “We were feeling pretty good about ourselves.”

Nevertheless, Ariens also observed behaviors he did not like to see. Having not been at Ariens during its “heavy lifting” days, new employees did not have the same sense of urgency as more tenured ones, he said. Also, some leaders had strayed from Ariens’ team-oriented approach.

As a result, Ariens changed some of the leadership team in 2004 to better reflect the company’s values and keep it engaged in its lean efforts.

He described the moves as “tough lessons” to learn along the lean journey.

3. Disciplined chaos. Disciplined chaos, explains Ariens, is the ability to recognize where you want to go and remain focused on that goal without letting chaos throw you off.

The Buck Stops Here

4. Benevolent dictator. “There is a place where the buck stops, and if it isn’t with the CEO, then the business is in trouble.”

Further, he says, “there are some dictates.” Core values are one example, he says.

Ariens’ core values:

  • Be honest.
  • Be fair.
  • Keep our commitments.
  • Respect the individual.
  • Encourage intellectual curiosity.

5. Fearless anxiety. See challenges as speed bumps, he says.

6. Cultural revolution. Ariens described a company’s core values as its “cement.” The revolution is what “goes on above, and the cement allows that to happen.”

7. Confident humility. “Confident humility is knowing we’ll be okay,” without getting complacent, Ariens said.

The CEO peppered his talk with a quote from Vince Lombardi and a nod to Jim Collins, author of “Good to Great.” He noted that the lean journey can be tough.

“The journey is the destination. When we realize that, that’s when we know we have arrived.”

Also from the 2013 IW Best Plants conference: BMW: Leading Sustainable Growth

About the Author

Jill Jusko

Bio: Jill Jusko is executive editor for IndustryWeek. She has been writing about manufacturing operations leadership for more than 20 years. Her coverage spotlights companies that are in pursuit of world-class results in quality, productivity, cost and other benchmarks by implementing the latest continuous improvement and lean/Six-Sigma strategies. Jill also coordinates IndustryWeek’s Best Plants Awards Program, which annually salutes the leading manufacturing facilities in North America.

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