I could really drop the term ‘Lean’ out of the heading, but being a Lean practitioner, I should at least align it to my specialty. When work feels like it is getting complicated, you are having difficulty working out where to start, these principles are there as a guide to help you get better as a business leader. Adapt them, add your own thinking to them, but keep true to the philosophies.
Lean Leadership Principle 1: Lean is a Journey
One thing an business owner that truly understands what ‘Lean’ is all about, will never say is “Lean - oh we did that”
Lean thinking is a journey of incremental improvements, not a quick fix or the program of the month. It is not a programme of work - because programmes or projects have a finite start & end point. It is a mindset, an attitude, a framework in which you are all working on.
Some days it may feel like the road is steep, but every change, every improvement takes you further along that journey. Whether that step is a small or large one. It doesn’t matter what each action is, what matters is that 'Lean' (or call it continuous improvement) is ongoing - it’s happening by EVERYONE, everyday.
Patience is a key lean leadership virtue. Sure, there are things you can do to accelerate improvement, but a culture change will not happen overnight and it will never be finished. At the end of the day, learning how to get better at getting better should be just what you do.
Finally, it is about simplicity - keep it simple. You don't need complex calculations or ideas. Sometimes simple is the best.
Lean Leadership Principle 2: Perfection is the Ultimate Goal But never Achieved
Good enough, well, isn’t. Even processes that don’t appear “broken” can be improved. “That’s how we have always done it,” we have all heard this comment, but it is not part of everyday Lean thinking. Lean leadership is about empowering all your team members to ask questions and rethink processes, even if it seems to be working OK. It demands intense curiosity and the willingness to experiment. It demands leadership to allow the people doing the work to improve their jobs, making it easier and more enjoyable everyday.
Benchmark it against best practice in your sector, you might have a fantastic process but is it attaining the right quality standards?? That's not to say, however, that you should only make improvements once you've planned enough to achieve perfection. This can be a major barrier to implementing improvements. It is far better to take small steps in the desired direction. Don’t be afraid to reset the standard. Lifting the bar, resetting expectations are great.
Quality is a key element of attaining excellence. Another key element is team engagement. How well does the team communicate the goals, what is their game plan for the day, for the week. Are these set collaboratively? Have you shared the business goals, if so are the teams actions aligned to these? Having the people who do the work set the expectations, set the standards, improve the processes is crucial. Don’t do it to them, do it with them.
Aim to get better each day not perfection once off.
Lean Leadership Principle 3: Customer Focus is Key
Businesses who practice Lean thinking will seek to eliminate waste. Why? So that they can deliver to the customer the maximum value that they are willing to pay for. It is also a great way to improve profit margins!
Customers don’t want to pay for defects, administrative overhead, delays, or excess stock, so we must seek to reduce them. But it’s not all about cost reduction.
Great customer experience (not just service), high-quality products, and innovation should also be considered value added. The key here is to spend money on what you need in order to provide higher value to your customers - from better products to happier employees who are more attentive to their work - and reduce spending in areas that add no value.
Design the process so it is customer centric, not what will suit your preferences. Maximising the customer experience is core to Operational Excellence & Lean Thinking.
Lean Leadership Principle 4: Simplicity
More often than not, after I have done a presentation or described some of the methods I use in businesses, I get the response "that doesn't sound too difficult". In most cases, they are right.
Like a skilled teacher using years of experience who keeps their students focused, on track & supported. The most effective practitioners make it look easy. But they will tell you that there is a lot of planning, experience & knowledge to achieve the impression of simplicity.
This is the same in the world of continuous improvement & operational excellence. For example, all of the wastes of Lean (there are 8 of them) that can be minimised by simplification. Transportation, motion, & over processing are all flags that point to the need for simplification. Some people believe that improvement is about doing more, but I am there with an external viewpoint to question & facilitate the question ‘why’. To go fast, occasionally you need to slow down.
Why are you actually completing that step? Moving the product across the factory floor? Work smarter, not harder.
Sometimes you don't need the experts to look at process improvement, most times they are the worst people to use - simply because they know too much.
That's where we come in to ask the simple question "why?"
Lean Leadership Principle 5: Every Employee Deserves Respect
One of the best tools used by leaders practicing Lean is the Gemba Walk, or simply put - go to where the work is done.
But it isn’t about management just showing up and being seen to be seen. It also isn’t about a command and control style of leadership. Please don’t see this as a licence to micro-manage. It is about engaging, asking the right questions. The shortest description of the practice is, “Go see. Ask why. Show respect.”
It is a chance to reinforce the message - fix what is bugging you. Empower them to improve the things that are not working. Encourage them to talk to colleagues, question, and improve. If they don’t know how, coach them through the process, don’t do it for them.
By bringing all employees along on the improvement journey in this way, not only do you get better results, but you also reinforce the idea that they are skilled in what they do and that you value their contributions to the organisation. Mutual respect creates the only environment in which true engagement can thrive. Remember, productivity can lift up to 20% just by having an engaged workforce.
It’s a good idea to imagine yourself in a helicopter above your Lean Thinking forest. Get out of the woods for a minute and examine the health of the team’s Lean efforts.
Oh, and finally - this is not a one off activity but a disciplined part of any Lean Leader’s actions.