Six hallmarks of a Lean Leader

Leadership principles, values and habits underpinning continuous improvement

One of the critical success factors in becoming an efficient organisation is the quality of leadership and this is demonstrated through some of the following principles, values and behaviours…

Learning
Learning never stops for a KAIZEN™ leader. There is a burning desire to better understand the application of the KAIZEN™ methodology that made so many organisations excellent. To learn more about improving people, processes, products, and equipment/ technology, is endlessly pursued.

Serving
Lean business leaders don’t require people to serve them – they are humble and kind enough to serve the people within the organisation. They also realise that putting the customer first is more than a slogan and that collaboration is vital to serve their quality, price, and lead time needs. Even attending to the interests of suppliers and helping them to sustain their businesses, shows the willingness to serve the objectives of others. Instead of playing the cut-throat game, there is a realisation that the total supply chain should create value for all stakeholders if we want to serve the final customer in the long-run.

They don’t see themselves as above others and use inclusive language. They demonstrate the wisdom of former USA president, Theodore Roosevelt: “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” For the mature KAIZEN™ leader, a caring attitude is not a sign of weakness but a hallmark of real inner strength.

Coaching
Developing their people, based on well-defined standards and clear business objectives, underlines the understanding that process improvement goes hand-in-hand with people improvement. Coaching people at the coalface to improve performance is just as vital as coaching them to improve their skills, understanding and abilities. Coaching is also an opportunity to increase staff satisfaction and lift their engagement. It is true that not all employees want to engage, and some don’t care about the workplace or the customer. However, when you are on the business improvement pathway, developing people is not optional. A stable business requires skilled people; able to do quality work and to further enhance it.

Setting the example
KAIZEN™ leaders don’t expect staff to apply Lean if they are not living and breathing it themselves. They don’t tell people what to do but rather lead them through their example. Although they do get things wrong from time to time, even by acknowledging their mistakes, their behaviour becomes a benchmark of self-awareness for the rest of the team.

They work alongside their people to ensure processes are improved and obstacles are removed without insulting and blaming them when things go wrong. This develops further trust and respect within the business.

Inspiring
People very often lose their intrinsic motivation when the workplace is characterised by fear and frustration, rather than finding fulfilment. On the contrary, motivated staff is “switched-on” and showing a willingness to focus on the customer’s needs by making products and services better. To improve motivation levels, as Professor Hideo Kunisawa from Nagoya suggests, a leader has to fulfil the basic human needs of (i) feeling approved and accepted, (ii) wanting to improve as a person, and (ii) having stronger interpersonal relationships. Meeting these needs in the workplace is showing respect for people.

Addressing problems and inefficiencies
Improving a business requires constant problem solving with the people at the coalface when problems occur. An immediate feedback process enables the appropriate leaders to support their frontline staff to eliminate the root causes of these problems without blaming a “culprit”. The founder of the Kaizen Institute, Masaaki Imai, said the following about problems solving during our last Japan KAIZEN™ Study Tour: “I know that an organisation is mature on its Lean journey when I see people spontaneously doing problem solving in the workplace.” An efficient leader understands the importance of making it easier for staff to identify problems and to be capable of improving the wasteful condition by applying the Lean methods.

Continuously improving the way we lead and manage businesses will help to improve quality, reduce cost, and shorten lead times through motivated staff members, working in a safe and healthy environment.

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