Activating Lean Leadership

In the US, an ideal CEO is rugged and charismatic, and loudly articulates a bold vision for the business. As CEOs tend to be portable, they typically apply what has worked for them before in a new company. As they enter a new workplace, they often set the goal of fixing a ‘broken culture’ by introducing a new performance culture. To achieve this, they often bring in consultants they have relied on before to build a leadership team and implement the new culture.       

This leadership style is in sharp contrast with lean leadership, practiced at Toyota, a Japanese automotive brand with global appeal. In contrast to many Western companies, Toyota grows its own leaders. Leaders are typically hired as freshmen and stay at the company until retirement. This leadership practice raises a question: Does it inevitably mean a stale culture? At least this is not the goal: Toyota wants a stable culture which facilitates the growth of exceptional leaders who passionately pursue excellence, and seek to achieve even the most audacious goals. Toyota also wants its leaders to utilize their creativity and innovative potential.

There are 3 main building blocks of lean leadership: (1) humbleness, (2) persistence and (3) continuous learning. This training never stops: the underlying idea is that leaders should always strive to achieve their personal bests and drive the growth of the company. The training is an iterative process where goals are divided into many small steps aimed at achieving a breakthrough on a big challenge. In many cases, leaders pursue goals through short and rapid experiments. They receive guidance from other leaders so that their efforts will yield the best results.

In contrast to conventional leadership, lean leadership prioritizes teaching over management. Lean leadership can only be implemented in an organization if its leader encourages her/his team to constantly improve both their hard and soft skills. (S)he should also stress the importance of trust and transparency as the building blocks of the company culture. The lean leader should not just simply agree to every proposal of her/his subordinates. Instead (s)he should ask clarifying questions that will help better understand an idea or let its author reach her/his conclusion by herself/himself. The leader’s role is to allow each member of her/his team to learn and experiment. 

To maintain their innovation efforts at “a sustainably fast pace”, lean organizations encourage continuous improvement, experimentation and learning. They recognize that employees with hands-on experience with the product are most likely to come up with the best ideas of how to improve it so they actively listen to them. Lean organizations also eliminate long feedback loops. Instead, they implement standardized processes for communication, share knowledge across the organization, and ensure that decisions are made with the most relevant, timely information. All of this helps lean leaders ensure a smooth transfer of knowledge and information, and helps them better utilize the innovative potential existing within their organizations. 

Lean leadership puts a lot of focus on commitment to continuous improvement, which is one of the key principles of lean manufacturing as well. As companies undergo the lean transition, they go through many changes. They need to be ready to continuously improve to ensure a smooth transition. Lean leaders need to be committed to push changes forward even if it is very challenging. If employees start to lose interest or even doubt the system, lean leaders need to give them a glimpse of the bigger picture. They should also ask for employee feedback and suggestions, and carefully consider them.  

References:  Jeffrey Liker, | Alex Novkov, | Rachaelle Lynn, |