Lean Management: The Role of Lean Leaders

What is Lean Management?

Lean thinking is fundamentally transforming the way organizations operate. The Lean principles of continuous improvement, respect for people, and a relentless focus on delivering customer value are making teams and organizations rethink the practices that might have guided them for decades. A new, transformative approach to working requires a transformation in leadership, as well. For Lean to be truly effective, it needs effective Lean management — to champion Lean principles, offer guidance, and ensure that Lean is being used to optimize the entire organizational system for value delivery.

Practicing Lean management principles requires a shift in mindset: from that of a supervisor, to that of a teacher and coach. Lean leaders must lead gently, by example, ensuring that Lean principles are being applied with the right goal in mind: To sustainably maximize the delivery of value to the customer.

In the same way that no two Lean transformations are exactly the same, no two applications of Lean management principles is exactly the same. Lean management is not a set of defined methods, tools, or practices. It would be more accurately defined as a management philosophy, a long-term approach that systematically seeks to improve processes and products through incremental changes.

As management guru Peter Drucker said, “The essence of management is not techniques and procedures. The essence of management is to make knowledge productive.” Keep reading to learn how Lean management principles can help you harness the full potential of your employees.

Lightweight, Mentoring Leadership

Business agility hinges on an organization’s ability to utilize and adapt to the most current information. In a traditional corporate structure, by the time an executive has made a decision about something, and that decision has been communicated through the ranks, it might be out of date — not an effective way of staying ahead of the competition.

In order to maintain a sustainably fast pace of innovation, Lean organizations encourage continuous improvement, experimentation, and learning across the organization. They recognize that the people with their hands on the product most likely have the best ideas for how to improve it, and so encourage every idea to be heard.

They do not waste time with long feedback loops up and down the chains of command. Instead, they develop standardized processes for communication, share knowledge across teams, and defer commitment to ensure that decisions are being made with the most relevant, timely information.

Effectively practicing Lean management, then, requires leaders to play a fundamentally different role. The role of a Lean leader is that of a coach. Coaches align their teams around a common goal — a why that should guide every decision, big to small. They arm their teams with the tools for success, and encourage them to make smart decisions that will allow for sustainable, competitive growth. When it’s game time, they provide guidance and leadership as needed — but mostly, they rely on the skills, knowledge, and experience of their team to do what is necessary to achieve the team goal.

Create an Environment of Continuous Improvement

Lean leaders encourage a dedication to the scientific method, a means by which organizations can practice continuous improvement, or Kaizen. Claude Levi-Strauss put it like this: “The scientific mind does not so much provide the right answers as ask the right questions.” It’s the role of Lean leaders to create an environment that fosters continuous improvement, by asking guiding questions, supporting teams as they test hypotheses, and celebrating improvements, in both performance and process.

Effectively practicing Lean management requires leaders to trust in the skills, knowledge, and experience of their employees. This means hiring smart, ambitious team players, giving them the tools they need to be successful, and then, most importantly, getting out of their way. The role of the leader is not to do the work, or to micromanage the work — it’s to lead teams toward prioritizing the right work, which will result in the most value for the customer. Going to the gemba and stopping the line are two techniques Lean management can use to effectively practice continuous improvement.

Go to the Gemba and Encourage a Student Mentality

An incremental, evolutionary approach to change at the organizational level requires everyone, especially leaders, to have a clear understanding of the direction of that change. Lean management challenges leadership to go to the gemba, the place where the work is being done, in order to become better leaders.

Rather than relying solely on reports, executive summaries, and other edited, condensed forms of information, Lean leaders go directly to the source. They demonstrate by example how to be a student of Lean. They listen to their employees and learn about the processes guiding progress in their organizations. They work to remove anything blocking value from being delivered to the customer. They ask questions to better understand the flow of work through the organization’s value streams.

In this way, Lean management benefits by having the ability to maximize the value they bring to the organization — by making decisions with a clear, holistic view of reality.

Stop the Line to Ensure Quality

When a problem arises, Lean leaders set the example for immediately tackling the problem before it grows. This is called “stopping the line”, a practice taken from Lean manufacturing, in which an assembly line would halt production to resolve an issue, no matter how small. This practice holds everyone on the assembly line (or in the case of knowledge work, value stream) accountable for delivering a consistently high-quality product.

Stopping the line forces every part of the organization to swarm to resolve an issue, learn why it happened, and prioritize work to ensure that it does not happen again. Continuous improvement cannot be one executive’s job — it should be the means by which decisions are made at the personal, team, and organizational levels. Every person in an organization needs to feel comfortable escalating an issue to a “stop the line” issue, which means the organization needs to have a clear process for what is or is not stop the line. It’s up to Lean management to handle “stop the line” issues with respect, so that everyone feels safe to address issues as they arise — a key element of continuous improvement.

Keep Organizational Focus on Delivering Value to the Customer

In order to maximize value delivery to the customer, it’s critical to understand how value flows through your organization, from the moment work is requested until it’s in the hands of the customer. Lean is often equated with the elimination of waste, which is, in some ways, accurate — but probably not in the way you’re thinking.

Eliminate Waste to Increase Speed

Modern Lean defines waste through the eyes of the customer, as anything the customer wouldn’t willingly pay for. Lean leaders are relentlessly focused on eliminating any activity or process that does not directly benefit the customer. Part of that effort also involves increasing the speed of value delivery.

“Increasing speed” might sound like a charge to work faster, which to many might translate to: “Do more, do it faster, and do it all at once.” You’ve probably heard more than once that multitasking doesn’t work. We wrote about it here and here. A key Lean principle charges individuals, teams, and organizations to limit their WIP (Work in Process) to eliminate context switching, scope creep, and other wastes associated with a lack of focus.

Eliminating waste in knowledge work does not equate to cutting costs or jobs. Remember the quote from above: “The essence of management is to make knowledge productive.” The purpose of eliminating waste is to be able to maximize the impact of the talented people in your organization.

WIP Limits and The Role of Kanban in Lean Management

Understanding current WIP is one of the key Lean management tools, because it empowers Lean leaders with the ability to see where their guidance is needed most — for example, where work is piling up, where a process could be automated, or where more of a specific skillset is needed in order to keep work flowing through the system. Instead of wasting time gathering and analyzing status updates, leaders can play that lightweight, mentoring role that allows teams to do their best work.

Limiting WIP is nearly impossible if that WIP isn’t visualized, which is why many organizations employ Kanban as a way to practice Lean. It’s up to Lean management to both limit WIP at the organizational level, and set the example of limiting WIP themselves. Learn more about WIP limits here.

Practicing Lean Management

Just as a Lean transformation cannot happen overnight, a Lean management transformation is not something that can be turned on with a switch. For many leaders, this requires abandoning many of the principles that have gotten them to where they are.

But the purpose of Lean management, and the goal of Lean as a whole, justifies the effort: Making this shift allows leaders to build sustainable, healthy companies built on a foundation of respect, learning, and continuous improvement. A Lean management approach allows leaders to leave a legacy they can be proud of: in careers spent learning, growing, and empowering people to do their best work, in companies that create products and service offerings that provide genuine value to their customers.

Recommended Resources

To learn more about the Lean management topics covered in this article, we recommend the following resources:

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