Lean Leadership: The Missing Link?

The TOYOTA wayI coined the phrase “What you see is how we think” to suggest that the principles of lean thinking are not only embraced by everyone but are also evident throughout the organization.  In this context, becoming a lean organization requires effective leadership to create and foster an environment that allows lean thinking to flourish.  Just as a teacher establishes an environment for learning in the classroom, leaders carry the responsibility for cultivating a lean culture in their organizations.

So how could it be that Lean Leadership is the missing link? I suspect and have observed that too many leaders have displaced the responsibility for lean into the middle management ranks rather than taking ownership of the initiative themselves.  These same leaders often operate on the premise that lean is simply a matter of implementing a collection of prescriptive tools to improve efficiency and cut costs. It is clear they have failed to understand the most fundamental principles and basic tenets of lean. If this sounds familiar, I recommend reading “The Toyota Way:  14 Management Principles from The World’s Greatest Manufacturer” by Jeffrey K. Liker.

So where do we turn?

Toyota is one company that exemplifies what it means to be lean and the lessons learned through their trials, tribulations, and continued successes are well documented. I admire Toyota both through first hand experience as a supplier of products to all of their operations in North America and secondly through their willingness to openly share their experiences with the rest of the world.  This is evidenced by the many books and articles that have featured them.

I recognize that Toyota has been the subject of many news stories in recent years, the most notable being the recession of 2008, the extremely high-profile recall crisis for Sudden Unintended Acceleration (SUA) in 2009, and most recently, the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. In turn however, we must also acknowledge and recognize that Toyota’s leadership was instrumental to guiding the company through these crisis and for directly addressing the diverse range of challenges they faced.

A sobering look at the crisis that challenged Toyota’s integrity and leadership as well as the many lessons learned are well documented in “Toyota Under Fire: Lessons for Turning Crisis into Opportunity” by Jeffrey K. Liker and is highly recommended reading. I am further encouraged that Toyota acknowledged that problems did exist and didn’t look to deflect blame elsewhere.  Rather, Toyota returned to the fundamental principles of “The Toyota Way” to critique, understand, and improve the company.

In the context of this post and lean leadership, I am pleased to learn of another new book “The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership:  Achieving and Sustaining Excellence Through Leadership Development” by Jeffrey K. Liker and Gary L. Convis.  As Toyota continues to evolve while remaining true to the principles of The Toyota Way, we realize again that lean is not a short-term prescription to success but a journey. My simplified definition of Lean Thinking follows:

“Lean is the pursuit of perfection and pure value through the relentless elimination of waste.”

As every lean practitioner will (or should) tell you, the process begins by defining value.  Many companies operate under the false pretense that they are already providing the value that customers want or need.  As such, they attempt to improve existing products or services by either adding features or making them faster and cheaper. From the perspective of Lean Thinking, the “secret” to making real change begins by finding:

“… a mechanism for rethinking the value of their core products to their customers.”

Lean Thinking challenges us to consider the value our customers are demanding.  Accordingly, we must ensure that our infrastructure, business practices, and methodologies deliver that value in the most efficient and effective manner possible.  Only when we focus on value from a customer perspective can we offer a solution that truly meets the customers’ needs.

Apple is one such company that continues to redefine and improve its product offerings to the point of anticipating and creating needs that never before existed.  Apple’s iPad is just one example of their unique approach to creating niche products and solutions to address speed, connectivity, portability, and features that we as customers never thought possible.

The Leadership Challenge

Leadership is challenged to define and deliver “value” to the customer in the most effective and efficient manner. This is not as simple as it sounds and having leaders within the company that understand Lean Thinking is a requisite mandate for any company wanting to compete in today’s global market.  The challenge exists for leaders to adopt lean thinking to deliver real value at prices we can all afford.

Succession planning and training leaders for the future is an ongoing effort to assure continued sustainable success. Leadership is responsible for hiring the right people and to ensure they receive the training to do their jobs correctly.  “The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership:  Achieving and Sustaining Excellence Through Leadership Development” is sure to be a welcome addition to the library of true Lean Leaders and lean practitioners.

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Until Next Time – STAY lean!

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5 thoughts on “Lean Leadership: The Missing Link?”

  1. HI Redge,

    Lean is definitely a leadership challenge. Leaders have to think and lead differently to get different and better results. It often sounds simple enough but everyone would be doing it if it were that really that easy.

    Thanks,
    Chris

    1. You’re right Christian! I think too many leaders are concerned with results rather than investing in the very processes that drive them.

      Hoshin Kanri is covered in some depth in They Toyota Way to Lean Leadership as well. This is one area that is seldom covered in other texts and is certainly indicative of changing the way things are done.

      Nice to see you drop by. Thanks again for your comment!

      Redge.

  2. The Nike Lean journey began like many others. It was 1998 and we had issues with our manufacturing supply where our strategic objectives were outpacing our ability to deliver capabilities. So we called in the Lean experts who quickly informed us that our situation was much too complicated, we didn’t own our manufacturing, our contract suppliers were spread throughout SE Asia and the workforce was for the most part made up people migrating in to the factories from the rural farming communities with little to no manufacturing experience. Not a great beginning, that was until we had the pleasure of meeting Tony McNaughton. Tony saw our situation as a great challenge. His years of experience in the Toyota Support Center gave him the confidence and expertise to know that given the right level of commitment by Nike and the Factory leadership, that Lean would revolutionize our industry. Tony was right, his unwavering commitment to our journey over the past 10years has in fact revolutionized not only our manufacturing operations but also our business enterprise. Tony has proven himself a very competent strategist as well as thorough and persistent practitioner of the purest form of Lean, the type that only someone with his years of service and training at Toyota could have. When partnering with Tony, you can be assured that his advice comes from experience and knowledge. A critical and very difficult skill to find in contracted support. I think that it is fair to say that we wouldn’t be anywhere near where we are today without Tony’s on-going support and never ending encouragement.

  3. Simply wish to say I enjoyed your article. The clarity in your post is simply cool and i can assume you are an expert on this subject. Well with your permission allow me to grab your RSS feed to keep updated with forthcoming posts. Thanks a million and please keep up the gratifying work.

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