One of the problems with some of the books and articles on lean leadership is the tendency to oversimplify the concept in terms of a dictator versus coach. It is too easy for people to read about the characteristics of a traditional manager and, because they aren’t that bad, surmise that they are therefore a lean leader. What many do not understand, though, is that the difference between a traditional manager and a lean leader is not binary . . . it’s a continuum and very few, if any, are completely at one end or the other.
There are many characteristics that separate a traditional leader from a coach and most of us tend to drift to one side or another under any given circumstance. Moving toward a lean leader, however, requires the application of the PDSA cycle guided by regular and honest personal reflection, along with a sincere desire to help others develop.
The key to becoming more of a lean leader on a consistent basis is to understand the characteristics that separate the two ends of the spectrum and work to improve the areas where one shows the biggest gaps. Although it is a humbling and sometimes painful exercise, it is one that can reap huge rewards if done consistently and effectively.
The Dictator-Coach Spectrum
Some of the characteristics that separate a controlling manager from a lean leader are included in the questions below. Understanding how often and effectively you apply these characteristics can be a good starting point for reflection and eventual movement toward the positive side of the spectrum.
- Do you stop and reflect regularly on your performance as a leader? Effective leaders take time to reflect on the performance of their teams and how their own performance could have improved results. Sincere reflection can help determine where to focus development efforts for the team as well as well as yourself.
- During conversations with team members, do you listen more than you talk? Perhaps the most common behavior that drives leaders toward the traditional side of the continuum is the propensity to talk too much. Besides the fact that development does not generally occur when people are lectured to or talked at, they tend to turn off when they do not feel listened to. If, after a conversation, you can’t clearly understand the other person’s opinion by recalling specific examples of what they said, you most likely did too much talking.
- How often do you realize that you don’t know something? One characteristic of great leaders is that they continually develop themselves. One way to effectively self-develop is to have the courage to regularly question your own knowledge and performance. Kaizen thinking is personal and happens when someone deals with a situation by questioning the status quo and challenging what they and others believe to be true.
- Do you spend more time worrying about your own image than developing your team? A clear red flag that someone leans toward the traditional side of the spectrum is spending more time with those above him or her in the organization than team members. It is an unfortunate but it is common for leaders all the way up the organization to be disconnected with those on the team. Performance reviews, promotion systems, and overflowing in-boxes are just a few things that distract leaders from their main responsibility to support and develop people on their teams, and although these things can explain the reasons for becoming self-centered, they do not excuse one from ignoring one of the most important responsibilities of leading a team.
- Do you continually develop your own skills? An important trait of successful leaders is that they never stop developing themselves. When it comes down to it, it is not possible to continue to develop others unless you continually develop yourself. I have known many leaders over the years who stagnated and stopped learning and developing. Whether resulting from too much to do or thinking they already know everything they need to, stagnation really means atrophy. When it comes to development, you either go forward or backward . . . there is no standing still.
- Do you go see your team or make them come to see you? Although a basic element of lean thinking, going to gemba to see and learn firsthand is something that still has not made it into everyday leadership. Leaders who refer to an “open door policy,” do not understand how intimidating it is for some people to walk into their office. By making team members come to them instead of going to the team members, they also do not understand the importance and value of seeing for themselves. Relying on spreadsheets, meetings, and the opinions of others to know what is happening in the workplace misses a critical dimension in truly understanding the facts.
- Do you help your team understand how they contribute to the purpose of the larger organization? To become engaged in their work, people need to understand how it fits into the bigger picture for the organization. Through regular conversations, coaching, and effective dashboards, the team can gain a much better idea about how important their work is, and why it is critical to continue to improve. Leaders can also become more effective when they gain a better understanding the larger system. Handoffs between teams improve and more attention is focused on improving the value stream rather than attempting to optimize individual team performance.
Moving toward lean leadership involves a system approach that requires attention to and development of numerous factors. There are obviously more than the seven listed above, but these are the issues I see most often. The key is to understand how you, as a leader, fit into the performance equation of the team and to continually improve the areas where you can positively affect the outcome.
One of the most common reasons organizations fail with lean is that they attempt to deploy it in the operation without changing the system of leadership. Lean is about shifting the way people throughout the organization think and approach work and if leaders expect it to happen without transforming themselves, the probability of sustaining improvements is pretty much zero.