Leadership Move Two: Build Tension, Not Stress

A lean leader must provide the source of energy that will compel the organization toward action. Without this energy, no amount of skill or knowledge will lead to success. Many leaders push their organization but do not generate a corresponding sense of...


A lean leader must provide the source of energy that will compel the organization toward action. Without this energy, no amount of skill or knowledge will lead to success. Many leaders push their organization but do not generate a corresponding sense of urgency. They create stress, but not tension.

To distinguish the two, people feel stress when conditions are nearly impossible, pressure is immense and the path forward is shrouded in fog. On the other hand, people experience tension when they sense a gap between the current reality and the ideal state. The difference is they are offered resources and support from leadership to help them succeed. They can see a clear path to help them move forward.

Unproductive pushing leads to stress, whereas productive pushing paves the way for tension. Without any kind of a push, organizations remain stagnant. A company needs three elements to turn stress into tension: a vision of the ideal state, a clear grasp and hatred of the current reality, and the right skills, capability and actions to close the gap between the two. The leader is responsible for providing all three elements. If any of them are missing, no matter how powerful the remaining forces, productive tension will not be created.

A Vision of the Ideal State

Being a visionary is different than creating a vision of the ideal state. Most visions have two major faults: For one, they are often directed to the wrong audience. Most leaders cannot recite their company’s vision. When they are asked about the company’s vision, they commonly steer persons to the lobby wall. Those visions are for customers, not the company. They provide a comfortable feeling for customers, containing good marketing jargon like “committed to our customers” and “world-class quality.” The second flaw with most visions is that they simply state the outcome. Anyone can create an ideal state that includes perfect quality, perfect delivery or increased market share and profits. This is not an ideal state — it is simply “good stuff.” An ideal state should provide an image of how the organization should function. It should not be easy to reach a consensus about a company’s ideal state — a vision should challenge people to see a different potential, to choose a different path or to develop a clear path.

The ideal state does not need to be pared down into a single paragraph that fits on a poster. It should live in employees’ hearts and minds and pepper their everyday conversations. Here is a snippet of a good example of one company’s ideal state: “We strive to provide ease of ownership — easy to buy, easy to own, easy to maintain, easy to use.”

Ideal states are not necessarily the same for everyone within an organization. The ideal state for a customer service representative should relate to his or her work. The same goes for a salesperson, a machine operator, an accountant, etc. Every person, function and process should have an ideal state. This is not to suggest that companies create a dozen three-ring binders filled with ideal state documents. Ideal states are not pieces of paper, but ongoing dialogues that take place as leaders teach, coach and encourage workers every day.

A Clear Grasp and Hatred of the Current Reality

To provide a compass for the journey, the participants in a lean transformation must have a clear sense of where they are currently, as well as the ideal state to which they are heading. Lean leaders need to help everyone understand the current reality and instill a hatred of the condition. They must articulate the current problems, gaps and opportunities. They must understand their relevance to the big picture and long-term success, and determine the root causes of the conditions. Most leaders have great difficulty dealing with current reality. They convince themselves that they fully understand the issues and develop a false sense of security. For example, knowing current numbers is important, but it does not indicate a grasp of the current state.

This content continues onto the next page...