⦁ Businesses must adapt to change or face extinction.
⦁ Lean thinking relies on the scientific method.
⦁ Lean originated in automaker Toyota’s management strategies: the Toyota Way.
⦁ Its first pillar is “continuous improvement.”
⦁ The second pillar calls for “respect for people.”
⦁ Lean leaders must gain the knowledge they need to take effective action.
⦁ Practice self-development to gain belief and trust in yourself.
⦁ You can become a self-directed lean leader.
Businesses must adapt to change or face extinction.
As the world faces increasing volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA), senior executives must embrace the ongoing need to adapt to change, offer tangible value to customers and keep their businesses thriving.
The core of lean practices and leadership is the understanding that businesses should put customers first. Lean leaders set out to satisfy customer requirements on every level – including both the obvious and the unseen. If they fail, they will cease to create and offer value and will imperil their organizational stability. In the decade leading up to 2030, about 40% of today’s organizations will implode.
“What does it mean to be truly customer-centric? It means you care about every interaction you have with your customers, from initial inquiry to a purchasing decision to servicing the product/service afterward.”
In lean terminology, the word “customer” has a broad connotation and bespeaks greater challenges for leaders. Your customers include the colleagues who create and deliver your products and services, the people who buy your products, and others whom your product and services affect or influence.
Lean thinking relies on the scientific method.
Lean leaders do not let local, immediate concerns warp their long-term perspective. Embrace flexibility and continually upgrade what you offer. When you stop trying to grow and improve, you encourage dangerous self-satisfaction in yourself and in your team.
“To be a leader…people want to follow, you must offer them the stability and security that comes from truly believing and trusting in yourself.”
The scientific method calls for examining a problem, formulating a question, and developing and then testing hypotheses around it. Practitioners of lean thinking attack problems by conducting experiments and drawing inferences from them to reach solutions. They keep track of their methods and what they learn, and then they repeat the process.
Lean originated in automaker Toyota’s management strategy: the Toyota Way.
Lean thinking calls for constantly asking questions across the organization throughout the process of developing solutions. Its principles led to Toyota’s success. The crucial concepts of the Toyota Way are organized around five values built on two pillars.
The first pillar is “continuous improvement.”
Toyota’s first pillar, ongoing improvement, has three principles:
⦁ “The spirit of challenge” – Change confronts leaders with opportunities from which they gain understanding. They use what they learn to strengthen their management abilities and to tackle even more difficult issues.
⦁ “Kaizen” – The English translation of kaizen is “improvement.” Kaizen is the practice of always seeking to improve every company function. Each small improvement makes a difference in the ongoing battle against all forms of waste, an ever-present challenge.
⦁ “Genchi genbutsu” – This term translates as “going to the source,” which signifies getting to the root of a problem. Toyota believes that no one finds solutions while sitting in an office. By digging to find where a problem originates, you avoid lengthy discussions and speed up resolution because you based your problem-solving tactics on firsthand knowledge of the issue.
Toyota executive Akio Toyoda suggests that everyone in a business must take personal responsibility for any issues the company faces – without regard to their position in the corporate hierarchy.
The second pillar calls for “respect for people.”
The two core principles of the second pillar are teamwork and respect. Teams from the structure within which employees can make progress. Toyota believes that employees can’t do much outside a team setting, so it offers incentives to teams rather than to individuals. Lean leaders must see themselves as part of a team and must share a common vision with their team members, so they all can work together to achieve mutual goals. Each member must accept responsibility for other members’ performance.
“Leaders often don’t understand they must first develop and lead themselves before they can attempt to lead others.”
Toyota believes that respect begins with a heartfelt desire to make a contribution, though an employee’s viewpoint might not be the same as that of a business partner. Employees and leaders should honor each other without regard to how much money someone makes or his or her position in the corporate hierarchy.
Team members should repeatedly ask “why” as part of their problem-solving approach. And, business leaders throughout an organization must heed their staff members’ questions, listen to their ideas and encourage diversity in how they view the world. People must accept the sincerity of their teammates’ perceptions, whether they agree or not. They shouldn’t condemn any opinion as too extreme. Everyone can help a team pursue improvement and share accountability for its progress.
Lean leaders must gain the knowledge they need to take effective action.
Your knowledge and the actions it leads you to take are critical factors in your evolution as a lean leader. You must demonstrate the ability to motivate yourself before you try to motivate others, including your customers and your organization. Anyone can read about what it takes to become a lean leader, but taking action based on what you learned is the true challenge.
Practice self-development to gain belief and trust in yourself.
People want to follow leaders who believe in themselves, listen to others and then trust their own judgment. Leaders can instruct others only based on what they know and can do themselves. This means that leaders must gain mastery of – and develop faith in – their abilities before they can lead others. Leaders must devote themselves to the lifelong quest to perfect their leadership skills.
“Becoming a lean enterprise is about achieving a state of continuous evolution, brought about by a commitment to continuous improvement efforts that are geared at accomplishing customer, stakeholder, and business outcomes.”
No one achieves perfection. But seeking it will motivate you to reject conventional wisdom in your search for newer, better methods and leadership practices. It also motivates you to develop continually as a human being.
Lean leaders often become uniquely equipped to manage specific situations. They reach an intersection at which their preparation helps them cope capably with a particular problem or circumstance. Others may see this as good fortune, but luck has little to do with being prepared for a challenge. This ability results from the disciplined pursuit of leadership competence. Outside observers might assume that a worthwhile leader doesn’t expend much effort, but outstanding leaders learn to mask the difficulty of their accomplishments.
Gaining mastery over leadership is challenging because you can’t learn how to lead by rote. An approach that works in one situation may not work in another. That requires developing the capacity to handle different challenges. When things become difficult, it’s critical to have faith in yourself and your abilities. As you commit yourself to develop as a leader, remember that only practice can bring you closer to perfection.
Leaders should set aside time each day for self-development and learning. To develop trust in themselves, leaders must take time to think and reflect on their thoughts, emotions, and methods. Each day, they should consider how they feel and what they think outside of the fog of staying busy and preoccupied. Sit quietly or meditate before the confusion of the day takes over. Meditation helps leaders learn to breathe deeply and synchronize their bodies and mind. Lean leaders acknowledge that keeping in touch with themselves affects how they function.
You can become a self-directed lean leader.
Leadership has many facets. Decide which characteristics you have and which you need to develop. Construct a game plan, and gradually pursue it. As with any other skill, you must work on your personal development regularly. As you develop, embrace these concepts:
⦁ “Leaders are both born and made” – You may inherit characteristics that make you a lean leader, but you can also develop other traits through your own efforts and what you learn from circumstances you encounter in your life. You learn a lot about leadership when you face challenging times. You may discover that when your beliefs come under attack, your leadership capabilities come to the fore. Don’t believe that you lack leadership skills because you don’t have the aura of a John F. Kennedy or the drive of a Theodore Roosevelt. If you commit to the process of developing yourself as a leader, you will gain competence well beyond the competence with which you began.
⦁ “Expect some degree of failure” – Most type A personalities can’t accept the idea of failure. Understand that when you venture into new terrain, you have chosen to embark on a path of learning. You might experience missteps along the way. As you learn from your failures, remember that they are part of your attempt to immerse yourself in continuous improvement. Reflect on your failures, and discuss them with your mentor or sensei. Modify your approach, and prepare to deal with your task again in a fresh way. The next time you confront a similar situation, you’ll know how to handle it more adroitly. You could find that life presents you with an array of similar situations until you have learned how to manage them effectively. Putting your energy into dealing with problematic situations helps you make progress in your journey to become self-led.
⦁ “Shift your mindset from training to developing yourself and others” – You can’t expect someone else, perhaps in a classroom setting, to instill leadership abilities in you. At best, a classroom can provide background information plus a modicum of understanding that you can further develop. To improve your abilities as a lean leader, learn to evaluate matters judiciously. Engage in training to gain the wisdom you need, and seek opportunities to apply your knowledge. This is true at any age; becoming a lean leader doesn’t depend on your seniority. You will definitely grow older, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll automatically become wiser. You need practice. You don’t necessarily have to gain expertise before you lead, but as a lean leader, you may face difficult situations. To this end, you need training and opportunities for “on-the-job development.”
“Innovating is the heartbeat of the lean enterprise. And it must beat with vitality and zeal to ensure that disrupting your competition and marketplace is in the forefront of everyone’s mind within your organization.”
⦁ “Make leadership development an objective, measurable process” – Focus on conscious effort and measure your progress. Define your objectives, key result areas, and opportunities for growth. Keep track of your evolution. Define what success looks like for you on an individual and an enterprise level. Share your understanding of success with others as part of developing a lean enterprise. Ensure openness and objectivity so no one can give preference to favorites. Instead, recognition will depend on reaching enterprise objectives.
⦁ “Empower others to lead” – Recognize that leadership is a group activity. You have the responsibility as a lean leader to help others become leaders. Only a team that prepares for the moment when the opportunity arises – that is, a team that can draw on its leader for inspiration – can achieve outstanding results. Develop individually as your organization develops. Everyone in an enterprise has a duty to make it profitable by making sure it offers customer value. Your system of leadership ought to give you a competitive advantage.
⦁ “Build a culture that encourages lean leaders to flourish” – To be exceptional, an enterprise needs leaders at all levels. An organization’s culture should encourage the development of leaders within and attract leaders from the outside. Even one person who shows true commitment to lean values and actions can help develop a healthy culture.
About the Author
Jean Dahl is a specialist leader within Deloitte Consulting LLP’s Lean-Agile Advisory and Strategy practice. She is also the executive director of the Modern Lean Institute, a nonprofit devoted to helping the world develop and build lean leaders.
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