It takes tenacity and diligence to lead a lean initiative, but what of those who are in it for the long haul? In Pascal Dennis’ book “Andy & Me,” he chronicles the transformational journey of Tom Papas. What’s interesting about the story is that in addition to the transformation of Tom’s staff and facility, he himself also undergoes a shift in mindset. This brings about the question, what is a lean leader? More specifically, for those about to embark upon or those who have just nicely ventured into a lean journey, what are the characteristics — either natural or learned — that are necessary to sustain the journey and achieve results?
Based on my experience in helping business owners and leaders transform their organizations into high-performing enterprises, I have noted several distinct characteristics that set apart those who survive and thrive while on their lean journey, and those who fumble and falter about, barely able to achieve any notable change. What I also find intriguing from my observations is that lean leaders are not born, nor are they built, but are those who are most adept at dealing with change on a personal and professional basis.
As you can imagine, there are dozens of unique characteristics that I can identify. However, what I wanted to share with you were the three most crucial, allowing you to contrast your own performance as a leader to determine how you measure up.
Impatient and Unsatisfied
Now, to start off with, I’m not suggesting that a lean leader is someone who is impatient with people or unwilling to wait for results. Quite the contrary. A lean leader is someone who is impatient with the speed of the status quo. Lean is about velocity; by removing waste and focusing on value, the indirect outcome is an increase in the velocity by which results are achieved. I recall earlier this year I met a business owner who from my perspective had this distinct characteristic. While interviewing his senior managers they continually spoke of how the owner was never satisfied, always seeking new ideas to reduce waste while generating increased value for the organization and its customers. Now this might sound like someone who is difficult to deal with, but in fact, this individual was well respected for his desire to improve, most predominantly because of his approach with staff. You see he didn’t seek ideas from the boardroom, but spent considerable time interacting with employees at all levels of the business. For each and every new idea that yielded an improvement over the current state, employees were rewarded.
I have found over time that many business leaders often are inflexible in the eyes of their employees. Once a decision is made, there is rarely any chance that the decision or direction will be changed. This is not the attribute of a lean leader. A culture of continuous improvement requires a leader who is both flexible and adaptable. After all, markets shift, technology advances and customers change. Being stuck in one’s ways to maintain a reputation as confident and stable is not the best attribute if a business is attempting to transform through lean. To advance business processes so they in fact continue to deliver increasing value, flexibility is required by employees and leadership. A lean leader recognizes that flexing the organization will allow for navigation of the waves of change while steadily increasing value and profits.
Notice how I left strategic until last? Business leaders who have successfully navigated their lean journey are strategic, but not at the cost of being impatient with the status quo and flexible enough to pursue new ideas to increase value and reduce waste. I have written here before that business strategy in and of itself must be flexible if it is to achieve the desired objectives while mitigating and managing the changing business environment. Lean leaders who I have had the pleasure of working with maintain a strategic perspective and never ever take their eyes off their objectives, yet are not so fixated that they are willing to achieve strategy at the cost of progress.
So with these qualities in mind, the question then remains as to whether in fact you are a lean leader? To help with your assessment, I wanted to provide some questions relative to your personal preferences and demonstrated abilities. For each of the following questions simply answer yes or no. You will find the scoring at the bottom of this assessment.
1. Do you educate all of your employees on the connection between their inputs and business outputs?
2. Are your employees aware of the unique attributes of all of your key customer accounts?
3. Are you communicating with your team daily to apprise them of changes in the business?
4. Do you have cross-functional teams throughout the business who are rewarded for improving efficiency and productivity?
5. Are customer concerns addressed with the entire team or only with those team members affected?
6. Do you spend as much time discussing successes and strengths as a team as you do weaknesses?
7. Does your team have the ability to anonymously identify process or business weaknesses and inconsistencies?
8. Do you focus on achieving the desired results at the cost of educating your team in the process?
9. Are profits shared with employees, either formally or informally (i.e. bonuses)?
10. Are you a conduit to encouraging other business leaders to work collaboratively to improve productivity?
Score: Give yourself a 1 if you answered “yes” to any of the questions above, and a 0 if you answered “no.”
8 – 10: You have the foundational skills of a lean leader.
4 – 7: You are more focused on achieving outcomes rather than engaging employees to improve inputs.
0 – 5: Your culture or personal leadership style do not facilitate engagement and lean management.
This post was written by Shawn Casemore, founder and president of Casemore and Co. Incorporated, a consulting company helping organizations improve their operational performance. A recognized speaker and writer, you can learn more about Shawn and his company by visiting casemoreandco.com. To learn more about LEAN concepts please contact the LEAN Accountants of McKonly and Asbury, LLP.