Lean for Leaders

Leading a lean enterprise.

What does it take and why is it important if it is?

Certainly there are executive skills that are important for a successful leader. I spoke to someone today who believed that one of their success secrets was being able to focus on one thing at a time until completion. Kind of hard to argue with that idea until you begin to break it down.

Say my top priority is to solve a cost problem. I drop everything for a meeting with the three department heads and the accounting manager. We develop an action plan. They have daily meetings for status. All of the work to get to the bottom of this issue is in their hands. After the meeting I have a decision. Do I keep working on this problems myself and wait and see what they come put with which would be according to plan. I can certainly spend alot of time worrying about the problem – I can focus on this one issue and use my time to worry, investigate, worry, investigate, and in the process cover alot of ground that my three managers are covering now, and some ground that really doesn’t need to be covered at all.

Or I can go onto my next priority and put this one out of my mind until it comes back tomorrow. And this is where the first important executive skills is required.

Managing multiple priorities simultaneously. An effective leader cannot tell their subordinates – I’m sorry, I’m not going to meet or talk about anything else until I get this top priority problem solved. In most cases – and perhaps there may be exceptions but few – putting everything else on hold hurts the business, stalls important efforts by others, and wastes alot of your own time because you just cannot fill your time effectively with tasks that must be done by you.

Along with this first skill follows the next one. Managing information about your top priorities. You need to be able to take good notes. People laugh at the executive who takes constant notes in meetings in a big book. But this is how a mature executive manages information – by priority – along with action items, who is doing what, etc. There are those who can do this all by memory. Most of the executives I have met who believe they can do this by memory do a very poor job but nobody can tell them that because they pride themselves on remembering everything – big mistake. Ego substitution for effectiveness – “self-made-man” syndrome.

The next skill ties it together. Put everything in a time frame. If you put everything that needs to happen into your calendar as a meeting, a follow-up call, a trip, or something concrete that has to be done by a certain definite time, you will not be able to escape what you must do to be effective. You can write these things on a list but it will not have the power that placing them into your calendar has. And when you say “We’ll check on this tomorrow without stating a time and place, you will find everyone else making excuses for why it didn’t happen.

These are fundamental executive skills. Most people do not have these skills. Even experienced leaders often do not exhibit these skills. It takes a highly disciplined leader to focus on the basics and get them right continuously.

Leading lean takes the same discipline. But first let’s consider why this might be important.

Being competitive in any of today’s markets relies on how fast you can improve. So you’re delivering your product on-time 95% of the time. How fast are you moving toward 100%? Effective lean leadership relies on executives who are highly disciplined and apply the skills listed above to the task of lean leadership.

We list five processes that we believe to be essential for lean leadership.

  • Strategic Planning – setting and managing longer term priorities.
  • Leadership Communication – establishing processes for communicating priorities and status and hearing feedback from the entire organization.
  • Organizational Performance Review – reviewing performance at all levels on a regular basis.
  • Continuous Improvement Management – establishing responsibilities, assigning roles, and reviewing progress on all areas of continuous improvement/lean implementation.
  • Workforce Development – establishing and managing processes for workforce development.

Lean leadership is simply setting up conditions where a predetermined percentage of your time is devoted to sponsoring and leading improvement activities. If your lean leadership is “on-again” and “off-again” then you’ll need to give some thought to how you might establish these five processes so that you cannot escape the responsibility to continuous improve the business.