Why is leadership such an important topic in lean transformation? Because lean is not something you can engineer, implement through policy or manage like a product launch. Lean changes everything when done right. It changes the way you think, talk, see, act and react. It is a battle for people’s minds and hearts, and such battles require leadership.
“Leadership” has become such a cliché, it has nearly lost all meaning. The word has almost become synonymous with “executive” and “management.” Companies have built it into job titles. However, leadership is not a title or job — it is an act. Leadership is an act that anyone can conduct at any level in an organization. Including the word “leadership” in a job title or being known as an “executive” does not give a person the exclusive right to perform leadership acts (sometimes it may even make it more difficult to conduct acts of leadership).
To help define leadership, it is helpful to distinguish it from management. Managers maintain the status quo, or current reality. An organization’s current reality does not plod along on its own. It takes a significant amount of effort and attention from management to keep the cogs spinning in place. Leadership, in contrast, moves a company and its component parts toward the ideal state. Any behavior that moves an organization one step closer to its never-achievable ideal state is an act of leadership. This is true regardless of an individual’s position, regardless of whether anyone notices the act, and regardless of how the act fits into any leadership framework.
Many classic traits — such as motivation, communication, coaching, vision and calmness — often characterize leadership. But traits alone do not constitute leadership. If actions do not move things forward toward the ideal state, there is no leadership. By its very definition, leadership requires leading people somewhere. Leaders cannot lead people if those people remain fixed in place.
There are five leadership moves — five essential actions a leader can perform to help provide leadership on the lean journey. We will cover these topics in the next few columns:
1. Must be teachers;
2. Build tension, not stress;
3. Eliminate fear and comfort;
4. Lead through visible participation, not proclamation; and
5. Build lean into personal practice.
Leadership Move One: Leaders Must Be Teachers
“Teaching” does not necessarily mean standing in front of a classroom and delivering a lecture. Teachers need to be able transfer ideas, skill and understanding to others. Teaching might involve many tasks, but it is best exemplified when a student can declare that he or she is more capable today because of what a teacher did yesterday.
In a lean organization, learning is critical. It is not a task for Human Resources to perform with skill assessments and in-company universities — it is line management’s direct responsibility. Skills and knowledge are too important to ignore on a daily basis. Rather than focusing exclusively on the crises of the day, managers should take time to teach and provide leadership.
Why not delegate teaching to an external or internal training department? Because lean is based on how people think, not on just a set of tools or skills. Simply defined, lean is shared learning. Those in the organization must share a common philosophy, and a common set of ideas and principles. This does not imply brainwashing or call for the elimination of diversity. It does speak, however, to how companies apply diversity.
If everyone applies decisions and solutions based on different sets of ideas, the solutions often work against each other. Individually, the solutions may all be “right,” but collectively, they can become counterproductive and destructive.
Leaders cannot merely put people into situations and hope they learn the right things. Leaders must take responsibility for the message and for what is being learned. This is best accomplished when students can combine real-life experience with direct coaching from leaders.