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Lean Leadership Soft Skills (+PDF)

Learning the technical aspects of Lean takes time and effort. But, what few people recognize is that it is much harder to develop the soft skills of continuous improvement. The following list contains some of the greatest challenges—and opportunities—for many Lean leaders.

  • Granting Authority

The single biggest mistake that leaders make in a Lean company is failing to grant authority to their team members. That doesn’t mean giving team members blank checks to do anything they want. It just means that employees should have the freedom to solve problems and make improvements. When team members or junior leaders feel safe trying things out on their own, they get more job satisfaction, and bosses’ jobs get easier—a win-win situation. Of course, leaders must trust their teams to give them more freedom. One way for leaders to gain faith in subordinates is to provide them with proper training. (See our Lean Boot Camps for one training option.)

  • Training Trainers

Many junior leaders were promoted from within the ranks of the frontline employees. They may have very little training experience apart from showing a single individual how to do a new job. As a Lean leader, though, at some point they will have to teach their team a new concept. Senior leaders should show their protégés how to train their teams effectively. A good way to start is to assign the frontline leader as an instructor for part of a class the more senior leader is teaching.

  • Managing Meetings

One of the frequent complaints about meetings is that they waste time. Creating agendas and sticking to them is one method to improve their flow. Another is to pay close attention to what people are saying and keep the meeting from drifting off topic.

  • Evaluating Team Members

Few leadership functions are as lampooned as the annual review. It goes to show how poor many leaders are at evaluating their team members. One of the keys to providing effective feedback is to clearly state expectations, communicate frequently, and document both positive and negative actions throughout the year. One shortcoming to watch for is the rewarding of behaviors that don’t promote Lean operations. In a Lean company, the fire marshals (those focused on prevention) should be more valued than the fire fighters (those focused on reaction).

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  • Problem Solving

Leaders tend to have confidence. After all, they are the bosses, and must be pretty sharp to have gotten the job. Unfortunately, that confidence can make leaders jump to conclusions and take actions without enough information. Using a formal problem solving method like DMAIC or 8D reduces hasty decisions.

  • Active Listening

Far too many leaders spend more time talking than listening. And when they are ‘listening’, the leaders are really just thinking about what to say next. A good way to learn to focus on what a person is saying is to take notes, and then do a briefback of what was said before responding. The note taking keeps the leader’s mind from racing ahead, and the briefback confirms that the leader got it right. These actions make leaders slow down and understand what the employee is really trying to say.

  • Providing Constructive Feedback

It is rare to find a leader whose team members consistently walk away from conversations with a clear understanding of what to do. Discussions frequently leave employees feeling blamed, like the expectations are unreasonable, or that they have no idea what the leader wants. Managers can improve their own skills by asking team members to give a briefback of what they heard the leader say. This activity lets the leader immediately evaluate if the team member understood the instructions. (In active listening, the leader repeats what she heard. In this skill, the leader asks the team member to say what he heard.)

  • Goal Setting

Leaders want teams to get better, but often don’t set specific goals, or have arbitrary ones like ‘10% annual improvement’. A good rule of thumb is to shoot for a 70% success rate on goals. It helps keep teams challenged without getting discouraged. Leaders should also make sure that goals link to higher level targets and ultimately to the corporate strategy.

  • Being Direct

Some leaders worry too much about hurting feelings, and sugar-coat obvious problems. Of course, managers have to be courteous and respectful of their teams, but if there is a problem, they shouldn’t try to ‘pretty it up’. Putting dirty laundry out in the open is uncomfortable, but it adds incentive to solve problems. Plus, it lets teams know that their leader is working on the issue.

  • Saying No

Some leaders hate saying ‘No’. They don’t want to disappoint their teams, and they don’t want to look bad in front of their own supervisor. Simply saying ‘No’ to a boss, though, is probably not the best idea. Helping the boss prioritize works better. Staying on top of tasks lets junior leaders respond to requests from their boss by asking which of the many pending tasks is the most important. Bosses give out a lot of instructions, and often forget how much work they’ve piled on people.

Regarding employees, it is never easy to disappoint a hard worker. Sometimes, though, a leader has to make a decision an employee won’t like. But it is far better to give a definitive ‘No’ than to let a team member think that a ‘Yes’ is a possibility.

In the interest of self improvement, pick two or three of these skills that you are not good at, and try to improve them over the next month. Investing in yourself can pay huge dividends.

Practical Guide to Continuous Improvement

An audio version of this article is included in this section of the Intro & Exploration volume of our Nuts & Bolts Guide to Continuous Improvement:


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