Lean Leadership: Conflicting Pairs

We often talk about the importance of leadership on a lean journey and the distinction between a leader and a lean leader. Recently, when working with a few clients and when discussing lean implementation with potential clients, I was struck with a disturbing insight: Lean is often a difficult choice between what is easiest for an organization or what is right for an organization. Leadership is about making a choice. Lean Leadership is about making the right choice.

Upon further reflection it occurred to me that these choices could be described in conflicting pairs. I offer the following for you to ponder during your lean journey. Some of this might sound a little more philosophical than you are used from us, but there is practicality in every pairing. I simply ask you to dig a little deep and ask yourself on which side of each of these pairs do you see your behavior. Remember, leadership is not a position, it is a role and responsibility

Training versus Learning: Training is often just simply the transfer of information. Learning requires application, repetition and evaluation. Every training "program" needs to include elements of application and validation of the effectiveness. Also, remember the tremendous power there is in repetition. You can never repeat a message or an application too often.

Stress versus Tension: Stress is generally the result of a feeling of helplessness wrapped in a cloud of uncertainty. Tension is recognizing the gap between a desired state and the current and realizing the potential to narrow the gap. Stress is, obviously, not a good thing simply because of the wear and tear it puts on an organization and often isn’t intentionally imposed upon an organization. Interestingly enough, tension will relieve the stress.

Support versus Engaged: Webster defines support as "to aid the cause by approving, favoring or advocating." Webster defines engaged as "to involve oneself or become occupied—participation." I don’t think I have to elaborate beyond this contrast.

Demand versus Direct: It is obviously easy to make a demand of anyone. It often doesn’t require a vision or a plan and frequently doesn’t even require knowledge. Direction, however, is providing the beacon or guiding light for an individual or an organization while illuminating the pathway toward that beacon. Direction can’t occur without a vision and certainly not without knowledge. I’ve thought a lot about this pair and how often in my career, as a senior executive, I took the easy choice.

Preach versus Teach: Preaching can certainly be emotional and inspirational, but preaching doesn’t guarantee nor often is it a reflection of practice. I’m sure you remember that old adage: To teach you must first learn, and if you have truly learned, your thinking and behaviors (practices) will change. People often will follow a preacher, but they will always copy a teacher.

Walk versus Observe: This pairing is one of my pet peeves. Management by walking around (MBWA) was a popular yet highly ineffective management concept of the 80’s and early 90’s. It wasn’t that it was a bad concept. It was just poorly executed. MBWA without the skills to surface waste, observe activities, connections and flows, and identify abnormalities is simply "industrial tourism." It’s just a walk. Maybe it’s good exercise and it does provide some visibility of the individual to the organization, but not much else. Observing requires skills. Walking only requires movement.

Quick Results versus Slow and Sustained: This is really not a conflicting pair, but instead is often not a complementary pair. Every organization wants quick results, as they should, but there should also be a parallel path in the lean implementation that assures incremental and sustained results. There is no need to sacrifice one for the other.

Transfer versus Empower: We often subrogate or transfer responsibility and accountability to others without first providing them the skills and knowledge to succeed. We somehow expect they will pick it up along the way. Some do, but most don’t. Whether they do or don’t, it is still going to be costly to the organization. Empowerment requires enlightenment and education first before requiring responsibility and accountability. An often-repeated example is when we promote our "superworker" to a "supervisor," often getting a bad supervisor while losing a super-worker. As many of you consider a small Work Group environment in an attempt to emulate Toyota, don’t forget the skills development that will be required.

Tools versus Culture: If you haven’t heard our views on this important pairing, it’s not because we haven’t been saying it. Lean is not born from what you see; lean is born from how you think.

I’m sure there are other conflicting pairs and I would like to encourage you to send us your pairs so that we can share these insights and experiences in future communication.

Source: Lean Leadership Insights, The Lean Learning Center, Novi, Michigan

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.