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Leading Lean versus Lean Leadership

Dual Role for Lean Transformation

I recognized, after a recent update to the website https://www.andycarlino.com/reflections-leading-lean/ , that more background might be helpful to better understand the distinction between “leading lean” and “lean leadership’. Before going any further, I want to clarify that this is not about one versus the other or good versus bad. Leading lean and lean leadership are not mutually exclusive and in the absence of either any lean transformation will suffer and often fail. My concern is that the focus in a lean transformation is mostly on lean leadership, very often without regard for leading lean.

It is foolhardy to think that performance will automatically improve by simply “doing lean”. It takes a roadmap, governance, training and application of tools/techniques, and accountability. It is also foolhardy to think that the lean successes will be sustained without creating a culture of lean.

Senior leadership should understand that they have two roles to play, leading lean and lean leadership, and both roles are required. Lean leadership is about providing the vision for lean combined with the elements to deploy, manage, and monitor the implementation. Leading lean consists of creating new beliefs and thought patterns about how work is done, and why it is important and beneficial to do it that way. Lean leadership has been discussed and documented repeatedly and I do not think I can provide any meaningful additional insights. The same cannot be said about leading lean for which I can add insight.

A primary responsibility of senior leadership is to define a vision, and subsequently influence, the desired culture necessary to successfully execute the mission of their organization. Unfortunately, most cultures are not by design but are by accident. I am not suggesting that an “accidental culture” is good or bad, effective or ineffective, it is simply not by design. It is clear that the culture at Toyota is specifically designed to achieve their mission of competing in a level playing field and tilt that playing field to their advantage. I do not think anyone can argue that the culture of the US Military is specifically designed to achieve the mission of protecting American against enemies in the safest and most effective manner possible. I think we can agree that Toyota and the Military have generally been successful in achieving their mission. So how do we “design” for a successful lean culture?

Culture can be defined as a set of common beliefs and artifacts of a particular group of people. The challenge is to understand and subsequently affect the belief system. There are essentially 3 layers of beliefs held “true” by people in an organization. The 1st is ingrained beliefs. These beliefs are extremely difficult to change and typically cannot be changed without a significant emotional event. On the opposite spectrum of the belief system is surface beliefs. These can be easily dispelled or proven with data and facts. In the middle are the embedded beliefs. The beliefs that have been developed over time through repeated experiences. Embedded beliefs can be changed by repeatedly exhibiting the behaviors and providing experiences influencing a different set of beliefs for the population.

In summary, providing support and resources for lean is lean leadership. Leading lean is about creating the experiences that cause organizations to learn and practice until the understanding is clear and the belief system is affected.

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