Lean Management: How to Develop Lean Leaders in Your Organization

No company is safe from disruption. Many leaders are turning to Lean management as a way to safeguard healthy habits, progressive thinking, and problem-solving mentalities among employees in an otherwise shaky landscape.

But Lean cannot succeed without the right kind of leadership. Traditional, bureaucratic structures do not lend themselves well to sustainable Lean cultures. Lean organizations need a different type of leadership - lightweight, mentoring management systems that allow innovation to thrive no matter what obstacles might get in the way. Enter: Lean management.

Lean management advice tends to lean more philosophical than practical, making it difficult to put into practice, especially when a company is under pressure – which is when it needs this sort of leadership the most.

What’s more, in order to truly succeed, Lean needs not one leader, but a network of Lean leaders across the organization. These leaders must encourage positive habits and steer away from wasteful tendencies, especially during those stressful, pivotal times when, as humans, we tend to revert back to the status quo.

Here is a guide for developing Lean leaders throughout your organization, starting with a more complete definition of Lean management.

What is Lean Leadership?

Lean is often most closely associated with cutting waste, and as such, there are many who might see relentless waste cutting as a hallmark of Lean leadership. While a focus on efficiency is certainly an important trait for any Lean leader, the core principles of Lean leadership run deeper than that. Lean is about two things: Respect for people and continuous improvement.

Respect for people is respect for every member of a value stream, from executive to intern to vendor to customer. It’s believing that people want to do their best work, and that the role of leadership is to create environments that allow people to do just that.

Respect for people also means aligning teams around the philosophical why, rather than micromanaging the practical what. Lean leaders set the course for the ship, but they do not dictate every stroke it takes to get from point A to point B. This is because they respect and trust their teams and provide the resources for smart, talented employees to use their best judgment when making decisions.

Respect for the customer is making every decision with the customer’s needs in mind. It’s stopping to think:

  • Does this add value to the customer?
  • Would this enhance the customer’s experience?
  • Is this something the customer needs right now, or are there other more pressing needs that we need to meet first?

It’s from this place of respect that Lean leaders should approach waste cutting. Identifying and eliminating sources of waste should be out of respect for the customer’s time, energy, and money. Constantly amplifying the voice of the customer helps Lean leaders make decisions that stand the test of time.

5 Ways to Develop Lean Leaders

Invest in Lean learning

One of the most obvious, but often overlooked ways to develop Lean leaders is to engage in Lean leadership training across the organization. There are many incredible teachers in this space who can give your organization a proper introduction into the thoughts, habits, and practices of Lean leaders.

Engaging in organization-wide training reinforces the idea that everyone, not just those at the top of their departments, is called to be a Lean leader.

It can also rally your teams around a shared understanding of what is – and what isn’t – Lean, deepening your organization’s understanding of Lean and making it truly feel like a universal initiative.

Practice enterprise Kanban

We might be biased, but we’ve seen hundreds of customers, as well as our internal teams, benefit from the practical application of Lean in the form of enterprise Kanban. Using connected Kanban boards across an organization gives radical visibility into initiatives, goals, and objectives across the enterprise.

When implemented correctly, Kanban can help to break down silos and encourage cross-departmental collaboration. It can build accountability into the organization in a way that can only be accomplished with true transparency.

Kanban boards are also a great way to begin practicing the Lean/Kanban concept of Kaizen, also known as continuous improvement. Managing their work on a board can help teams to better identify opportunities for improvement.

It’s up to Lean leaders to

  • Enforce and encourage the habits that make Kanban so powerful
  • Encourage teams to visualize and execute improvement projects alongside prioritized project work
  • Discourage unhealthy habits like hidden WIP, secret boards, and other killers of transparency
  • Make space for retrospectives and other process-focused meetings to encourage teams to really engage on a deeper level on not only what they do, but how they do it

Challenge processes, not people

One Lean management habit that’s more difficult in practice than it is on paper is challenging processes, not people. Often, we don’t realize how we are assigning blame to the people on our teams. We all carry subconscious biases that prevent us from truly seeing the reality of any given situation. Aiming to solve any problem by focusing on the process keeps teams solutions-oriented and discourages power struggles on teams.

Challenging processes, not people, can also usually uncover the real issues at hand; returning to the idea that people want to do their best work, often our tendency to blame people leaves us with high turnover rates but the same problems.

For example, insisting that the testing process on a development team takes too long and attributing that to lack of motivation of a single team member might not account for a process that holds one person responsible for testing the work of 20 others on her team. A more respectful approach might be to discuss the situation with this team member to try to determine why her backlog never seems to empty. You’ll likely find that adding another person to her team will not only improve flow, it will help to increase her motivation because she no longer feels like she’s drowning in work.

Internalize respect for people

Often, companies undergo Lean transformations without transforming their policies to match. There are countless ways to improve the employee experience without adding considerable costs.

This isn’t about adding ping pong tables or beer fridges in the office; it’s about creating policies, and therefore shaping a culture, that respects people enough to let them work in an environment that functions well for them.

Work-from-home policies are a great way to demonstrate respect for employees. Many companies fear that working from home policies encourage shorter work days, and result in less productive, more distracted employees.

The reality is (and what countless studies on the topic have shown) is that flexible working from home policies empower people to make decisions that allow them to reach their peak productivity.

Another common example of this is the much-debated open office floor plan. Many companies jump into this office setup as a way to modernize their space and encourage a sense of community. While open offices certainly increase transparency, literally breaking down walls between various teams and management levels, they also increase vulnerability and distractibility for many employees.

Open floor plans are great, as long as you are a fairly extroverted person who doesn’t get distracted by talking, music, and other noises. They’re quite horrible for more introverted people, or those who need extended periods of uninterrupted focus in order to do their best work.

A respectful office setup will create both physical and emotional space for both types of workers: Communal, social environments for those who work best in these settings, as well as private, quiet rooms for those who need them. Lean leaders should be aware of these differences between their employees, and advocate for environments and policies that allow team members to maximize productivity.

Go to the gemba

Another underutilized but incredibly effective Lean management principle is the idea of going to the gemba - the place where work is being done. The goal for any Lean leader should be to be so connected to the work of their teams that they play the role of a coach, not a supervisor.

Lean leaders don’t sit in their offices waiting for results. They roll up their sleeves, dive into problems, and ask lots of questions to help drive their teams towards success.

Some practical ways of going to the gemba include attending team meetings, standups, and retrospectives. Lean leaders are not above getting ‘into the weeds of their teams’ work if this helps them better understand the challenges their teams are facing.

Share knowledge

One key Lean principle is the idea of sharing knowledge. Increasing transparency in the flow of information can help to spread positive energy across the organization and reinforce Lean leadership principles. If the goal of Lean is to meet the needs of the customer in a sustainable and healthy way, sharing knowledge helps the entire organization maintain an up-to-date, accurate picture of the customer and their needs.

It’s difficult to achieve that “we’re all in this together” mentality across the organization if only some members are allowed to see all the cards. Although it can feel risky to increase transparency across the organization, the benefits of a culture built on trust and openness outweigh the temporary feeling of vulnerability.

Sharing knowledge can be:

  • Cross-departmental meetings to discuss progress on larger initiatives
  • Regular memos from customer-facing teams that explain recent learnings
  • Slack channels where team members from across the organization can post insights about the customer or the marketplace

Creating a culture that shares knowledge requires leaders to encourage transparency and frequent communication across their teams. Secrecy and closed-door meetings are culture killers in this regard.

It’s leaders who either promote or discourage these practices, so it’s up to those at every level of leadership to demonstrate transparency, openness, and communicativeness in every interaction they have with their teams.

Celebrate small wins

One key Lean principle is the idea of sharing knowledge. Increasing transparency in the flow of information can help to spread positive energy across the organization and reinforce Lean leadership principles. If the goal of Lean is to meet the needs of the customer in a sustainable and healthy way, sharing knowledge helps the entire organization maintain an up-to-date, accurate picture of the customer and their needs.

Management expert and renowned author Patrick Lencioni says, “Not finance. Not strategy. Not technology. It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is so powerful and so rare.” More effective teamwork is one of the greatest benefits of Lean, and it’s something that deserves to be celebrated.

Celebrating small wins reinforces the idea that the work teams are doing, both project work and improvement efforts, is valuable, meaningful, and important. Lean requires teams to be vulnerable and transparent about every aspect of their work. Taking a moment to acknowledge wins, no matter how small, can motivate teams to continue on the sometimes-rocky path of continuous improvement.

It’s worth mentioning that a win doesn’t necessarily have to be a positive outcome. Only celebrating when things go right does not promote a culture of innovation or experimentation. Lean leaders define all learnings as wins and celebrate positive and negative learnings equally.

Lean leaders can celebrate small wins through small gestures, such as announcing learnings through Slack channels, making a point to acknowledge the efforts of individuals during meetings, or buying lunch after a particularly difficult time. Celebrating small wins can also be built into a team’s workflow by adding a question to the daily standup like: “What new things did we learn this week?”

Lead by Example

Lean leaders have to be curious, open, and transparent in ways for which traditional management methods did not prepare them. Embracing and embodying Lean management principles requires many to retrain their brains to allow for a completely new approach to leadership.

One of the most exciting parts of Lean leadership is that it challenges the idea that leadership is an inborn trait that people either have or they don’t. By practicing the principles and practices above, anyone can become a Lean leader, regardless of their role, experience, or personality type.

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