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Bringing Lean to Leadership

For true lean effectiveness in leadership, we need to both inspire those who work for us, and help move the organization toward its broader future goals.

By ·
By ·

Editor’s Note: Mark Dohnalek is President & CEO of Pivot International, the Kansas-based global product development, engineering & manufacturing firm.

Lean manufacturing is a term applied to processes for department staffers but lean leadership is a process for the C-Suite and just as essential.  Lean principles are critical for achievement in optimizing day to day productivity as well as reaching long-term growth goals.

As manufacturers and supply chain professionals, we know the concept of lean leadership is an extension of lean manufacturing, which originated with Toyota’s famed Toyota Production System (TPS).  The aim was to eliminate waste and streamline the production process, with a primary emphasis on value provided to the customer.

This concept has been embraced by manufacturers worldwide because of the measurable ROI lean processes deliver and usually with a direct impact on the bottom line.  But lean has also been translated into a style of leadership with the goal of sustainably and maximizing customer value.  C-level and other corporate decision-makers have implemented lead leadership with this focus but it is not the same as maximizing profit. Here’s the difference.

More often than not, companies will try to maximize profit at the expense of the workers. For example, some operations may cut back on hours and/or training while other facilities may increase hours and work with less staff to meet production. In either of these cases, or other similar scenarios, these types of modifications for profit expediency will likely impact product quality and that will not maximize customer value. In fact, lean is built on improving processes while having respect for everyone involved in the project journey from concept to production.

When this is not done, lean is abandoned and so is the commitment to fostering improvement across the organization. As a lean leader, it is essential to understand how to maximize profit and simultaneously maximize customer value.

For true lean effectiveness in leadership, we need to both inspire those who work for us, and help move the organization toward its broader future goals.  Begin by thinking of yourself as a mentor and a teacher. When communicating decisions, consider whether you’re communicating them as orders to be followed, or as ideas that you believe are in your organization’s best interests.

Toyota’s Honorary Chairman, Fujio Cho, has an extremely succinct definition of lean leadership: “Go see. Ask why. Show respect.”  Understanding that lean leaders must go out into their companies to see their frontline employees, their managers, and their team leaders, and observe first-hand how they are performing their work.

This practice is not a performance review, and it’s certainly not punitive. Rather, “going and seeing” in lean leadership terms means observing with an open mind so you can later reflect on your observations and suggest improvements.

Asking why, of course, means simply that: ask your employees why they do a task the way they do it.  And, your employees may be the ones with the answers as the best improvements come from the people who have their hands on your product day in and day out. When you ask why something is done the way it is, do so with the goal of gaining valuable information that you wouldn’t otherwise have.

Finally, as lean leaders, we must always show respect to our employees. Without them, our products wouldn’t get made, and we’d have nothing to do. Lean leadership is essential and when done right it will improve the bottom line while maximizing both the employee and customer experience.


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