Lean Leadership: Logistics is Like a Box of Chocolates

By: Clint McCrystal – Training and Development Manager

Lean Leadership


The year was 1994. President Clinton was in office, OJ Simpson was trying to outrun a fleet of police cars and Microsoft was moving away from the DOS system. To say that there was a litany of leadership styles and characters in the forefront would be an understatement. If you can believe what you see in the movies, then arguably one of the most influential personalities that we were Lean Leadership introduced to in 1994 was Forrest Gump, now celebrating his 20th anniversary as a popular figure.   Although Tom Hanks’ rendition of the lovable laureate is often accredited many attributes, I would suggest that a major characteristic not to be missed comes from Forrest Gump as a repeat offender of displaying Lean leadership.

Every organization is built upon its leaders. Some are strategic, in charge of teams and business units with the task of managing and moving the organization forward. Others work in the trenches, providing tangible examples of peer role models and lifting up those to their right and to their left. Leaders can come from anywhere and the effective ones typically have many commonalities. Lean leadership, a powerful form of leadership, can be exercised by any team member, regardless of their rank or status. Forrest’s life carried him through many different hills and valleys and as he navigated the running paths of his life he displayed several characteristics that we as Lean Leaders can or should identify with.

As supply chain and logistics professionals we are often carried from one crisis to another in which stability seems impossible and every day is unlike the previous one. It is difficult to deal with uncertainties and entropy. We lean leaders often have to rely on one thing to get us through: our people. Forrest Gump demonstrated lean leadership at the heart of his adventures by investing in people and leveraging his attitude to continue to learn.

  • Mentality of a student– Forrest Gump may not have been the most academically included character that we have been introduced to, but no one would argue that he wasn’t a student of life’s many lessons. Just like Gump, a lean leader must have an inquisitive eye for their organization. Furthermore, regardless of our personal strengths, it is important to seek clarity in problems and situation until we have a level of understanding that we can use to attack that issue. Moreover, this level of communication goes both ways. Just like Forrest and his mama we have to learn the best way to explain things to others so that they can understand them as well.
  • Inquiry as opposed to advocacy, active listening– Lean leadership is not always the most natural way to lead. Rather than the traditional method of managing, which relies on a “leader” giving commands and orders, a lean leader asks questions that penetrate and listens actively when working with other individuals. Unlike Forrest’s foul-mouthed drill sergeant, Gump was eager to actually accept answers given by others. He didn’t navigate his predicaments with any strong pre-conceived notions of how things should be. Leading via inquiry and listening builds relationships and breaks down the barriers of hierarchical distance. Gump was able to take individuals that were less likely succeed and bring out their eventual best self through these relationships.
  • Leveraging your strengths- Everyone who has seen the movie can recall that iconic scene of the young Forrest Gump running out of his leg braces when chased by the truck and exhibiting great speeds in doing so. Forrest even said, “Now you wouldn’t believe me if I told you, but I could run like the wind blows. From that day on, if I was going somewhere, I was running!” This was just one of the great strides that he took in his own continuous improvement. It may sound simple or clichéd, but it can be really easy lose sight of our core competencies and put our strengths aside in order to chase the next big thing. Any lean logistics professional or lean leader knows that stagnation is not an option when working to advance the business, however the foundational method of moving it forward can and should be rooted in what we are best at.
  • Loyalty to the team- He donated money to Bubba’s momma, gave Lt. Dan a job on his shrimpin’ boat and repeatedly offered encouragement to his long-time friend Jenny. Even in the midst of a Vietnam-centered firefight Forrest Gump continued plunging back into the warzone to rescue his platoon-mates. Rather than dwell on his many feats and accomplishments, Forrest chose to be a team player first. It is this attitude that gains a lean leader reciprocated efforts and long-standing relationships. There is no better avenue to maximize continuous improvement and problem solving than to have buy-in from everyone involved and a wealth of eager resources to call upon in times of trouble

“Forrest Gump” may not be the perfect picture of lean leadership brought to us by the box office, but one could argue that in 1994 it was the best picture. Forrest’s example reminds us that, just like the world for the young man from Greenbow, our organizations are driven by people and that, just like the supply chain itself, the relationships can either strengthen or weaken the system. As lean leaders, we need to focus on being inquisitive, listening, looking for understanding, leveraging our strengths and staying loyal. And, perhaps, just like Forrest, we can shed the mantra of a working in a banal business and make our team and organization something that will be remembered for years to come. And, like Forrest always says, “that’s all I have to say about that.”

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