The lean leadership dilema

The Daily Lean Leadership Dilema – The Reality of Competing Commitments

Lean leadership behaviours and principles are discussed much more readily these days as the predictable correction away from a tool-based lean approach gathers pace. Report after report all pinpoint CEO “leadership” and “commitment” as a make-or-break fundamental of lean transformations and change programmes. Model after model are all depicted on consultants’ websites (mine included). Mostly they are mountain peaks being scaled or icebergs being discovered. There are even a few jigsaws and handshakes used to visualise lean leadership as a heady mix of inspiration and coaching. There are even more once inspirational quotes that have since become banal platitudes. Trawling through the reports, models and articles I become more and more frustrated and confused. Why you ask (as it is a fundamental characteristic of an aspiring lean leader)?

Abstract Concepts without Context

The first thing that unsettles me is that many of the models, articles and reports contain almost abstract concepts. A shopping list of things a lean leader needs to do or traits they must display. This mystical lean leader is one that is fanatical about the customer whilst simultaneously setting the direction, developing the culture and inspiring work teams with humility and respect. This must all be achieved whilst spending a large proportion of their time where the work is done and the value added. Is it any wonder that they are hard to find these “lean leaders”? What is most worrying about all these concepts is that they have no context or situation ascribed to them. I believe that situational awareness and circumstances are important when explaining the reality of lean leadership. The abstract concepts need a dose of pragmatism liberally applied. One example scenario that can be used is the common failure of 5S in so-called lean organisations.

Thinking, Speaking, Seeing and Doing:

The Fragility of Lean or the Mystery of the Missing S’s

Despite being promoted as a foundation of lean I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of sites I have visited where I have observed a sustained 5S system in place. “We never got beyond 3S” is a common refrain I hear when I ask natural work teams about it’s failure. When pushed they often cite the “nightshift” or the fabled “Mr Nobody”. The truth is obviously much closer to home. As a leader I can think that 5S is a good idea (even believe it is) and I can easily say that I am committed to it. However, when I see an away from standard situation on a shadow board for example and do not act to reset it or restore it to standard a new informal level is set. This new informal level is quickly communicated amongst the natural work team along with the reality of my observed, evidenced commitment to 5S. At that moment the leader’s behaviour is a living confirmation of the importance of 5S to the natural work team. The old refrain “do as I say not do as I do” comes to mind. It is mirrored in the organisation that promotes safety first and the management don’t wear PPE when they should or the quality first organisation that knowingly carries on making rejects. Perhaps it isn’t the failure of the common sense “tool” or system but, the behaviour of the leaders that is undermining the effective lean implementation. We might discuss high-level abstract concepts but, the daily reality of our behaviour is probably much more powerful. What does that mean for our ambitions of an effective lean transformation?

Are Lean Transformations all Destined to Fail? The Reality of Competing Commitments.

I was introduced to the concept of “competing commitments” a few years ago by, my boss at the Kaizen Institute at the time, Kate Mackle. It is just one of a host of things I am very grateful to her for. When discussing a tricky client situation we had she suggested I read a Havard Business Review article and book entitled: “The Real Reason People Won’t Change”. It is by two organisational psychologists named Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey. They introduce the concept to explain why someone may hold a sincere commitment to change but are unable to show it as, in reality, they have a competing commitment (often hidden) that is more powerful. In my experience I find that this is true of many leaders who sincerely think and say they are committed to a whole organisational lean transformation. They believe it is the right thing to do and say so. They invest in the programme, get in consultants, train people and start 5S. What happens next? What is their competing commitment?

Having the Courage to Embrace the “Stop”.

So then, what does the abstract notion of “leadership commitment” mean? Lean and TPS with the combination of JIT and Jidoka are designed to be sensitive to abnormality, variation and waste. Flow is designed to “stop” to make the voice of the process a physical reality. If a leader is truly committed to lean they must believe, organise for and embrace those stops. That is leadership commitment to lean. However, just as with the 5S only really getting to 3S, often a leader’s monthly reality of financial measures, targets and dashboards strangles the life out of the lean transformation before it really gets going. The first month-end that natural work teams are asked to “pull-forward” and knowingly overproduce to achieve sales targets or limp-on whilst knowingly making rejects is when the reality of the leader’s competing commitment shows itself. If at that moment the leader’s actions are different from the lean poster or mission statement the new informal standard is quickly embedded. If an organisation and it’s leaders are truly committed to lean then this fundamental contradiction needs to be discussed and tackled prior to embarking on the journey. It isn’t a short-term initiative. Leaders need to commit to building systems that allow staff to embrace the line stop and by doing so display to them their real leadership qualities. In that sense lean leadership isn’t just a set of abstract concepts it is a daily reality of systems and behaviour.