It is pretty widely known that the role and responsibilities of a leader differs significantly in a lean environment. As is often the case, though, knowing and doing are two different things. Becoming a lean leader, like most of lean thinking, is a simple concept that is very difficult to apply.
Jeffrey Liker and Gary Convis wrote about the system of lean leadership in The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership. In the book, they point out that the four basic responsibilities of a leader within a lean culture are (1) develop self; (2) develop others; (3) create alignment between vision and goals; and (4) drive daily improvement. Although appearing to be fairly straightforward, putting these responsibilities into practice can be very difficult without understanding that lean is a system where the elements have to be applied together to successfully transform an organization. Lean is like a Charles Dickens novel, where even the seemingly smallest details play a part in the story.
What this means is that the leadership responsibilities listed above cannot be approached in isolation. They work together, along with the tools and principles, to drive improved performance. And focusing on the details while keeping the overall system in mind is not an easy thing to do.
I have found very few people today who don’t agree that lean makes sense for business. Leading a team, plant, or organization, however, is a complex and challenging undertaking; and with a host of responsibilities and competing priorities and pressures, it’s not realistic to expect a leader to change his or her way of leading just because it makes sense. The best way to help people understand how the work they do can align with these four responsibilities is to show them. By going to gemba and demonstrating how the elements of lean work together to drive improvement, those you are coaching will begin to understand how the philosophy connects to real work.
The Role of Dashboards
Dashboards are a perfect place to demonstrate to leaders how to fulfill the responsibilities of developing others, creating alignment, and driving improvement (and, more indirectly, developing oneself). By creating a standard script and coaching leaders around the use of questioning based on data, you can help them gain comfort in the application of lean thinking through improved understanding of how the elements work together to drive improvement.
The questions I often use around dashboards include the following:
- What is the target? This question assures that the team is clear on what they is trying to accomplish. It directly addresses one of the biggest problems in organizations that people “just know” what they are expected to accomplish by making the targets absolutely clear.
- Why? This moves the conversation from clarifying the target to assuring that it is the correct target. To be truly successful, people need to understand why they are doing what they are doing, and clarifying the higher level objective helps drive alignment to the vision.
- What’s the gap? Effective problem-solving requires clarity around the gap between the target and what is actually happening.
- What are you doing about the gap? Actions to improve need to be directly aligned with the gaps in performance, and questioning the team leader on this can help assure that: (1) actions are being taken to close the gap; and (2) it is likely that the actions will be successful. Asking how the actions were developed and assuring that they are focused on root causes will also help improve problem-solving capabilities.
- How are the actions going? It should be clear from the dashboard which actions are being taken and how they are doing. This is the conversation around leading and activity-based indicators that show whether or not the team is carrying out the activities they feel will address the root causes. If the actions are being completed as planned, is it starting to close the gap? If not, why not? If so, what is the team planning to address next?
- What help do you need? A leader should always close the conversation with an offer of help to show that he or she is just as committed to improvement as the team.
The process can be demonstrated through a scripted conversation or by walking the leader through several dashboards to help him or her become more comfortable about applying it on a regular basis. What is important is to understand that learning does not happen without action, and action requires that people know what they’re expected to do and how to do it.