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Leaders are the people who can envision a destination and inspire a group of others to join them on the journey to that goal.

Leadership can be both formal and informal. In formal leadership roles, the leader is designated by someone of higher authority to act in that capacity. The role may be a permanent position, or it may be a temporary assignment, such as a kaizen leader.

In an informal role, the person is simply applying his or her inherent leadership skills to a particular situation. This type of leadership can be particularly effective, as people are making their own choice to follow the person.


A particularly difficult challenge of a Lean organization is that it has a tremendous requirement for leadership. Because of the focus on independent problem-solving and small group projects, plus the rapid pace of change, there is always a flurry of activity throughout an organization.

If formal, permanent leaders were the only ones in charge, they would simply not have the bandwidth to keep up with the needs of the organization. For that reason, people in a Lean organizations are frequently asked to guide their peers on improvement projects.

Lean organizations—the ones that really master it—create a problem for themselves. Success means growth, and growth means a need for more leaders. But that success is the result of the efforts of strong leaders throughout the company, leaders that took years to develop. When a company grows fast, it dilutes its leadership. It is important to keep the leadership funnel full of individuals who will be the future leaders of the company.

Fortunately, leadership is a skill that can be learned. The concept of a natural born leader is a myth. People may be born with particular physical traits, and even some hard-wired tendencies, but true leadership comes from practice.

Obviously, as a leader, one must have competence in their chosen field. They also must have strong leadership skills (rather than expound on that here, see our entry on leadership.)

But there are several basic skills that leaders must also have in order to be effective. You may note that these skills bridge the gap between management and leadership. While many people want to make a clear distinction between leaders and managers, the truth is that when a person is in charge, they need to be a little of both. So, if you want to be an effective leader do not forget to work on:

  • Public Speaking. As a leader, you will often be in front of a team giving instructions. Unfortunately, public speaking gives most people a case of the cold sweats, so this can be a major barrier for budding leaders to overcome.
  • Writing. In addition to basic grammar and punctuation, leaders must learn to write concisely. People are swamped and don’t have time to wade through lengthy communication.
  • Time Management. Leaders get stretched thin, especially when they spent a lot of time coaching their subordinates. They need to figure out how to get all of their work done.
  • Prioritization. Part of being a leader is deciding what is most important. The truth is, though, that’s actually the easy part. The hard part is learning to say no to the unimportant things.
  • Organization. One of the tools of time management is good organization. Stop spending your time looking for things and start spending it accomplishing things.

There are numerous other skills that can be extremely helpful to leaders, such as math, ‘reading’ people, problem solving, and a host of others. The point is that while leadership is focused on being able to set a course, it is the enabling talents that really makes a leader shine.

  • Don’t forget the little things. When leaders focus only on the big picture, they let the small things fall through the cracks. Get a system to keep that from happening.
  • Leaders must manage and managers must lead. And the mix between the two shifts over time. Being exclusively one or the other is a recipe for problems.
  • Don’t ever stop learning more about leadership. The world is becoming more sophisticated, so the challenge of being in charge is constantly rising.

Becoming a leader takes practice. If you have aspirations to move up in the world, you have to plan how to gain leadership skills. This will frequently entail pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone.

Some basic recommendations:

  1. Read. A lot. The more exposure you have to leadership topics, the better.
  2. Practice outside of work. Mistakes at work tend to stick with you. Instead, join a club, or help organize an event to get some leadership practice.
  3. Find a mentor, both inside and outside of the company. An internal mentor can help you navigate the waters of your company, but has the business’s needs in mind as well. An outside mentor doesn’t know your office politics, but can be focused entirely on you.
  4. Volunteer. When there is a leadership opportunity, take it. Your boss won’t flag you for development unless she sees some initiative.

Senior leaders must identify and develop a steady flow of new talent to implement the vision of the future.

Kaizen events provide outstanding opportunity to do both of these things. Make a point of identifying improvement projects that match the talents of the people on your team. Your goal should be to give them an opportunity to be successful but to challenge them. This will both build their confidence and highlight the areas they need to work on to round out the skills they will need as they rise up in your organization.


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Share Your Thoughts    |4 comments|


  • gwhite says:

    The organization that I am in is not Lean; however, we are ISO Certified so the verbiage maybe different but the ethos is the same. I like the fact that the topic and discussion is germane to compliance as a whole. As compliance professionals, we all know it isn’t easy. Therefore the more buy-in we get, the easier it is. I’m interested in any technique that can grease those wheels so keep it coming! Thanks, Genelle

    • Jeff Hajek says:


      Thanks for commenting. Regardless of how an organization chooses to improve, it will require strong leadership. And, as you mention, it requires serious buy-in to harness the potential of team.

      As long as people like you are interested, I’ll keep the info coming. Thanks for the support.

  • Jengo48 says:

    you are stressing kaizens in implementing lean strategy. Kaizens are short term 3-5 days projects for immediate improvement. There are lots of improvement projects that are not kaizens. how do you account for those projects in lean implementation

    • Jeff Hajek says:

      Hi Jengo,
      I don’t think I was stressing kaizen events. I just see them, in addition to a vehicle for improvement, as a good tool to use for leadership development.
      Other improvement projects are varied, but a good way to create pull for them is to use a range of leaan leadership tools like KPIs, daily management, and policy deployment. When there are misses on targets, leaders will have to get creative on how to close the gap.
      Thanks for contributing,

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