The Role of a Lean Leader

“There are three kinds of leaders: Those that tell you what to do. Those that allow you to do what you want. And Lean leaders that come down to the work and help you figure it out.”

– John Shook

A lean leader is someone who wants to create a learning culture across the entire organization based on creating customer value at the lowest possible total cost.

Cross Functional Collaboration

Having functions or individuals operating independently is bad within an organization. For example, one team member might assume that a supplier will deliver on time, while another team member assumes that they will be late. It’s important to uncover this difference in thinking and explore its roots. Once the team members share similar assumptions- it improves their ability to work together much more effectively.

A lean leader should set time aside to recognize these differences and collaborate as a team to build a common understanding so the issues will surface and prevent team dissention later in the process.

Visibility to the TeamLean Leader

As a lean leader we need to define and make visible what is important on a tactical level each day. The ultimate goal is to create a self-explaining workplace where problems and urgency are visual. With one look at any visual tool, a team member should be able to tell what’s going on:

  • A hammer is missing from the work cart.
  • Four new mortgage applications have come in today.
  • Tomorrow is a compressed work schedule.
  • Cell 5 needs some help.
  • We have one box of tubing left.

If someone has to stop and explain for 10 minutes what the visual means, then it is a wasteful tool. Understanding it should be immediate.

Standard Work to Drive Accountability

Time management is a critical piece of what you need to both teach and practice. In a lean culture, time management starts with the work – specifically, understanding routine and non-routine work and ensuring that tall work creates value.

Lean Leader’s should be making standard work for their team members to drive accountability. One way to tell that information or material is not flowing seamlessly at process connections that WIP (work in process) will accumulate. This is especially true if the connection point is between functions. The team will be able to see when individuals are behind on standard work and need help getting the task complete. Also, this will keep members accountable for making sure the daily tasks are completed for the day. Ask your team what objectives they want to attain day to day and how close are they to achieving them.

Build Reflection

What problems did we have? What caused the problems? How did we fix them? These are the kind of questions lean leaders should be asking their team members. Most working people are thoughtful and smart. They want to do a good job. If you tell a person you need their help to solve a problem, chances are, they will be eager to help. Before jumping to action, engage them in reflection about the problem. This will help to prevent wasted action.

Reflection is necessary for lean leadership because it enables structured thinking about process, operations and alignment. A person can reflect on his own or with a team; during a formal period as part of standard work, or spontaneously when a problem is discovered. Even 10 minutes at the end of your day to think about what went well and what didn’t – and then at the start of the day to think about what will be different today – can help a person to keep aligned with lean principles and organizational goals because the reflection acts as a “mini-reminder.” It also trains people to take ownership of their work and allowed them to let go at the end of the day, which shows respect for people for people and creates a safe environment for solving problems.

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