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The 18 Principles of Lean Leadership (+PDF)

Leadership is a critical component of Lean. Whether you are at the top of a company leading the Lean charge, or an engineer working to guide a group of operators on their Lean journey, you need a variety of leadership skills. But while the specific tools you use to lead in the different roles may vary, the underlying principles are the same.

So what are the leadership principles that link to success in Lean organizations? The principles in this article are distilled from over 20 years of leadership experience, including…

  • Four years at West Point and six years as an army officer
  • Hundreds of continuous improvement projects as both an internal expert and now as a continuous improvement consultant
  • Shop floor experience as a manufacturing engineer
  • Management of a wide variety of customer service teams
  • Ownership of a small business
  • Thousands of hours invested in earning an MBA

Possibly more important than my own leadership experience, though, is the opportunity I have had in my career to work with countless other leaders. I have been able to watch them in action. As I observed them, I recognized that their success correlated greatly to the principles listed below.

As you read the principles, you may notice that they are very general in nature. They apply to any leadership situation you face. The unique aspect to leadership in a Lean company lies not in which principles apply, but in the leadership challenges you will face. Lean pushes people out of their comfort zones, so the personal interactions can be more stressful. Lean requires constant innovation and new processes, so the problems leaders face will be unique. This stream of new issues and highly charged situations lowers the margin of error for those in charge. Incorporating the following principles into your personal leadership style will stack the deck in your favor.

The 18 Principles of Lean Leadership

  1. Know yourself. Far too many people don’t have a true understanding of their own capabilities. Many overestimate their talents and underestimate their weaknesses. As a result, people often make bad decisions about what they should attempt on their own and what they should get help with. To improve your leadership, give your team an anonymous survey to fill out about you. Get 360 degree feedback about yourself. Take an IQ test. Complete a proficiency test in your field. The point is to use some method other than personal perception to gain insight into your performance. It will be uncomfortable, but worth the effort.
  2. Define success, both professional and personal. Doing well on the job is important, but so is doing well in life. Most managers and executives will have professional goals. Fewer have a life plan that defines whether they are on track outside of the workplace. On occasion taking the scenic route is rewarding. But without a destination in mind, people tend to drift aimlessly. Take a few minutes to write a personal mission statement and see if any goals shake out of that process.
  3. Seek personal improvement. Once you know yourself and have a plan, you have to figure out what skills you will require to accomplish your goals. Often, you won’t have all the necessary tools. Make it a point to get them.
  4. Be compassionate and respectful. Your journey is long. They style in which you travel it matters. Help those around you when they need it, and show them the respect they deserve. That doesn’t mean give people everything they want, or always cater to others, but it does mean that you have to keep the people around you in mind when you make decisions.
  5. Be passionate. Whatever you do, commit to it, or find something you can get behind. Life is too short to do things you don’t want to be doing.

Article is continued below.

  1. Choose the harder right. I’ve heard duty defined as choosing to do the harder right over the easier wrong. You may get away with shortcuts most of the time, but there is someone who will always catch you. You.
  2. Have the courage of your convictions. If you believe in something, live it. You can’t sell what you don’t buy. If you are pushing Lean in your organization, go all in. If you hold back, your team will notice, and they will hold back as well. And that will hold your Lean progress back.
  3. Practice what you preach. Walk the talk. If you say 5S is important and can make a team more effective, be sure that your own workspace is ship-shape. If you tell your team not to batch work, don’t have them drop off a big pile of documents to sign once a week. Make sure that your actions echo your words whenever you can.
  4. Be a link in the chain of knowledge. Knowledge is power, but holding onto it is selfish. A big part of being a leader is teaching others. Use every opportunity you can to add to the skills of your team.
  5. Question assumptions. Far too many decisions are made out of habit. When you make a decision, ask yourself what you are basing it on, and then make sure that those things are facts. Visionary leadership comes from deliberate thinking.
  6. Question your boss in private, but commit in public. Don’t be a yes-man, but don’t undermine your boss. Every action you, as a leader, take sets an example for your team. If you promote your own agenda when at odds with your boss, you are telling your team it is OK to do that when they are at odds with you.
  7. Be freer with praise than criticism, but don’t sugarcoat. When there is a problem, don’t paint a rosy picture. Remember to be respectful, but also remember that discussing failures is an important part of developing your team. But never be stingy with compliments. Shoot for a 5-to-1 (or better) ratio of compliments to corrections.
  8. Take personal responsibility for where you are. The point you are at right now in your life is the culmination of all the decisions you have ever made along the way. Of course, starting out ahead is a big advantage, but what you do with the hand you are dealt is on you. When you start passing blame to others, you also hand over the power to make your own situation better.
  9. When in charge, take charge. Don’t leave a vacuum when you are the one who is supposed to be making the decision. If it is hard for you to settle upon a course of action, what makes you think it will be easier for someone with less leadership experience? Passing on hard decisions is asking for trouble.
  10. When nobody is in charge, take charge. Imagine a meeting where the organizer runs late. How often do people sit there aimlessly waiting for someone to tell them what to do? If there is a leadership void, and you are a leader, fill it.
  11. Communicate more than you think you need to. Leading requires that the people being led know exactly what is expected of them, and are clear on what they should be doing. Ambiguity creates conflict. Leaders must be able to clearly speak and write. They must be good at listening and interpreting what they hear. Reading between the lines and getting to the underlying message is a critical job skill for a leader. There’s an old adage about presentations. Say what you are going to say. Say it. Say what you said. The same holds true in leadership. Over communicating might be annoying to people, but under communicating can be costly. One trick is to use a backbrief (or briefback) to have team members repeat what you just said. It ensures the message was properly received.
  12. Know when to lead and when to follow. A room full of leaders seldom accomplishes anything. The best leaders know when to step back and let someone else drive for a while. Leadership, by definition, must have followers.
  13. Always have a mentor and a student. One of the best ways to improve is to teach. Having a student to coach keeps a leader focused and makes them scrutinize their own leadership style. Of course, you often don’t know what you don’t know. But your mentor does.

These principles are like the stars used for navigation. The landscape around you may change, but you can always look up and find your way by orienting yourself to the points of light in the sky.

When you are faced with a leadership challenge, these principles can guide the way. While they won’t answer the technical questions of how much inventory to leave in a kanban, or where to do the next kaizen event, they will help you conduct yourself in a manner that improves your chance of success.

Start out right now by putting principle one to use, and grade yourself on each of the other principles. See where you stand, and then start working to improve. Oh yeah—that’s the third principle.

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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