Sunday, October 28, 2012

Four things to be a GREAT Lean Leader

One of my favorite all-time articles about what it takes to be a really good lean leader was published in May of 2004 In the Harvard Business Review. The title of the article is "Learning to Lead at Toyota" and it was written by Steven J. Spear. I first read the article when I was one of the owners and Operations Manager at Duraflex in East Hartford, CT. We had just begun our lean journey, and I was focused on trying to convince people there to change the way they thought and how they did their work (processes). The article actually convinced me that to be successful, the biggest change had to be in what I did.

The article suggests four things I needed to do:

1. Direct Observation-there is absolutely no substitute for "Go See for Yourself". As lean people, we have heard from Day 1 about how important it is to go to "gemba". The article outlines just how important it is to see problems as they are happening, especially overburden. Overburden is defined as the impact of the work design on people. This cannot be done in a conference room, and it takes real practice to see waste and overburden.

2. Changes structured as experiments-as a leader, you need to build the confidence of everyone to improve their processes and solve problems. Not just a few people. Everyone. Start with easy ones to build confidence in people, teach them to take risks and make mistakes (why not try, we can always go back!). People needed to learn by doing. Then the improvements got more complex. It was important to teach people to fully understand the problem and the solution. You also need to build urgency for change by convincing people that what got us to today probably won't get us to tomorrow.

3. FREQUENT experimentation-I knew that occasional full day kaizan events wouldn't cut it. The article talks about 50 improvements in 2-1/2 shifts at Toyota. I learned about A3 (Managing to Learn), and taught my peers. In one year, they did over 350 A3s. My thinking was that we wanted to be the tortoise, not the hare. The trick is to convince everyone to spend at least 20 minutes every day doing improvement work. Either leading A3 or being on other people's teams. Like most things, the more frequently we do something, the better we get at it!

4. Managers as Coaches-to be a great lean leader, you need to lead as if you have no power to fire or discipline. This is a huge, difficult change for people who are used to being the boss. The article talks about NEVER actually improving processes yourself. Instead, teach people to see the 8 wastes (overburden). Answer questions with questions. I challenge you not to answer questions with answers for the next two weeks! The article speaks of showing respect by NOT answering questions.

I hope I've given you something to think about here. Post these 4 things on your desk or on your bathroom mirror, and, if you are determined, you will go from firefighter (like I was) to a pretty darned good lean leader.


  1. Is half this article in black font or is my computer on the fritz?

    1. Thank you for that Mickey. It was me, not your computer. Thank you so much for reading my blog and Happy Holidays,
      Bill Greider