If we were to point to one defining challenge for businesses today, it would be innovating fast enough to keep up with the blistering pace of disruptive competition. Lean can help businesses do just that — but it relies on an evolved form of leadership to do so.
As Lean leaders, it’s our job to unlock all of the knowledge in our employees by aiming to give them — in Dan Pink’s words — autonomy, mastery, and purpose. We will get our best organizational results if we give our employees the autonomy to do their work their way. We can do that safely if we invest in their skills so they have the mastery to do the work well. And we will get the right outcomes, and recruit and retain the right people, if we provide clear and consistent information about our organizational purpose — not the dry “what” but the inspirational “why.”
One of the misconceptions about Lean is that it’s mechanistic and impersonal. The painful associations of reducing waste through massive cost cutting — due to the early applications of Lean in manufacturing (learn more about the history of Lean) — don’t help with this reputation. But at its root, the waste that Lean truly aims to remove are the layers of overhead between the customer and the people who are directly making the product for that customer.
Your Charge as a Lean Leader
Lean leaders recognize that the vast majority of the value generated in their organizations is by the people with their hands on the product. They know that their role as a leader is to create an environment that empowers those people to do their best work. Because it’s through the Lean principle of respect for people that employees feel safe to challenge the status quo — and it’s by challenging the status quo that we innovate and continuously improve our products.
While this might sound idealistic, we’re not shooting for ideals: The goal is to create an environment that’s designed to learn, grow, and improve. This starts with you, becoming the leader who is willing to learn and grow along with it.
Lean enables us to be better leaders, because it teaches us to understand the heart of the problems our organization is facing and solve them in a transparent, sustainable way. No matter where your Lean initiative is, or how it got started — know that your teams can’t do it on their own.
Like any initiative, for Lean to be truly effective, it needs a leader. So, if you want to see your organization evolve — start by first evolving your own Lean practice.