What is the Role of Leadership in a Continuous Improvement Journey?

At the heart of Lean and continuous improvement is the development and growth of its people.  Creating an environment where team members develop the skills to improve the job and also improve themselves.  It is all about establishing a positive culture that revolves around learning and developing its people.  With this philosophy, allow your leadership to understand their role and expectations.  They may have been great at their job, technically sound and understanding of the work, but leading people is a different ball game entirely. Provide the opportunity to learn and develop the required interpersonal skills, the coaching skills that will support the growth of their team.

Another critical aspect is servant leadership. This allows the leader to role model the disciplined expectations.  Don’t be that person who yells orders and expectations then squanders off to do your own thing.  Leadership for change is hard to get this right, the balance between too friendly and being the leader.

Be prepared and ready to get in and be involved in the activity, the work.  Take the opportunity to understand the current situation, the issues and challenges first hand.  Then take the opportunity to role model the opportunities to improve. This might be a cliche, but it holds true every time.  If you have just established new standards, operation procedures and expectations then not follow them yourself, this is a sure fire way of sabotaging your continuous improvement journey before it has begun.

As these behaviours of leadership are being established, take the opportunity to enable the team.  Coach them through the improvement process, empower them to make decisions based on factual information.  If they are following sound problem solving techniques and identifying improvements,  stop being the bottleneck of decisions and allow them to make the changes.  They are your experts in their role so why not respect the knowledge and experience.  This might mean providing them with an expenditure budget so they can go ahead and purchase the required tools and equipment.  If you are nervous at a budget being blown out by ill-informed buying - link it to the improvement process.  For every A3 improvement plan, if it has been peer reviewed, allow an immediate budget to support the activity.  If the team follows disciplined practices then provide a more flexible process.

Remove the barriers to improvement.  Your job as a leader is not to complete the continuous improvement actions but to create an environment where learning, experimenting, trying new things becomes a habit by all team members.  If your team is waiting for you to make a decision or coming up with improvement ideas, something is not right in the culture.  Reflect on how you have been leading the activity up to this point and start giving them options, get them to make the final decisions. Allow them a wider range of discretion, expenditure - respect that the team will make smart decisions if you are clear about the expectations and requirements.

Coach through questions, do not solve, do not do the actions - encourage by asking questions. You may have started the journey by being a lot more involved so they could see what was expected.  As you remove yourself from the details, talk to them, be clear that you are now expecting them to take more of the lead.  After all it is their work space so they would be leading the activity, you are there when support or additional advice is needed. If they come to you with a decision, reply with a simple question “What have you already tried?”.

Establish the discipline of Leader Standard Work. Going to the Gemba is a key element of this process.  Be visible, understand what is actually going on where the work is done. Don’t just visit when there are orders to be handed out.  Go there, observe, ask questions, seek to understand. Provide the necessary information to the team on progress towards delivery goals, quality etc. Provide enough information that allows the team to ask questions and understand if they are outside of performance expectations.  If there are variations, encourage them to identify countermeasures, how are they going to get back on track? Provide enough information and data that will show issues.  A great system is one which allows problems to be seen, not hidden. Remember if anything goes wrong it isn’t the fault of an individual but the system.  Something has happened that did not allow the team to perform at their best.

When asking questions, it is based on exploring a continuous improvement culture. Coaching team members through the improvement process.

Examples of questions can be:
  • What is the job you are doing and what is the process?
  • Is there a standard you work towards?
  • Are there any problems when completing any of these steps?
  • What are the causes, have you done a root cause analysis?
  • How can you fix these issues?
  • What have you tried?

None of these questions are solving any problems but making the team member think, facilitating a learning process.  This is the key role for a leader through a continuous improvement journey. 

Occasionally you will find the need to make your team stop if there are consistent problems occurring and get them to problem solve and find the root cause, then put countermeasures in place.  Your role is to ‘see’ the big picture and identify the need for immediate action. Stop the fire fighting by enabling the team to solve problems and sort out long-term issues.  This may mean extra work initially, but each time you solve issues long-term will be an investment in your future self. Each time the team takes time to sort out problems they are gradually reducing the need to spend time fire fighting.

The leadership role in a continuous improvement journey isn’t for the faint hearted.  It takes a lot of time and energy.  It takes a lot of discipline to keep the momentum growing. There are days when you won’t be ‘feeling it’, but that extra push will be the difference to leading a world class business to an average one.


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