Lean Transformations Group

Really Good Leaders Don’t Mind Being Questioned

As a coach, it is a great day when a client shares an observation about their work and in a single moment, I know that I have made a difference.

In June, I was honored to accompany a group of 19 executives on a Lean Enterprise Institute (LEI) learning trip to Toyota and three of their vendors in Japan. As a longtime LEI faculty member and student of Toyota myself, the opportunity to witness 70 plus years of Toyota Production System refinement in person was incredible. Even better was observing how this group reacted to what they saw, hearing the questions they asked, noticing the details they picked up on, and listening to how they translated what they saw into questioning their own leadership and management assumptions.

Back to the moment that made me realize I had made a meaningful difference in someone’s work life. A couple days after returning home from Japan, I was talking with one of the executives on the trip just to say hello. With over seven years of experience with lean thinking (and a journey that has had its own ups and downs), I was looking forward to hearing his reflections. 

Here is more or less what he shared (I’m paraphrasing).

  • “Our hosts did not talk about ‘respect for people’; they demonstrated it through actions.  At every site they were engaging the people who were doing the work to be a part of the changes (kaizen) being made. Processes were designed to be ergonomic and easy to perform, and everywhere we went, expectations were clear and measurable.”  

  • “Over the four days and four companies we visited, we did not see a single maintenance person working on a piece of equipment… Operators were given a process that was stable and that worked.”
  • “I saw people improving processes to improve quality, cost, and delivery everywhere…”

  • “The degree to which value creators were actually creating value was amazing. The system providing people with the information, materials, and equipment (and process) they need to keep creating value.”
  • I could see it… the top to bottom alignment of purpose to actions to improve ‘performance to purpose.’ All of this was visual at each level and in every department.”

I expected to hear observations like these, but this next one is the one that really made me think...

My friend said that he “could tell how people on the trip were comfortable having their assumptions questioned and were comfortable questioning themselves.” Seeing new working practices that challenged what they were doing led them to reflect and try to understand their work better (and take their own work to a new and higher level). He shared with me that this is what I have been coaching him to do, and it was on this trip that he felt it really paid off.

This meant something to me because this is just not something we are used to seeing in most organizations: leaders who are used to being questioned and more importantly, who can also question themselves. To achieve the kind of performance we saw on this trip in Japan takes leaders who are humble, who take the time to watch what is really happening, and who reflect on their role in what is actually happening. It also means having the courage to forever experiment. 

As leaders, practicing these behaviors requires real grit. It is easy to be a knower and tell people how they need to do better or can get better; it is a whole lot harder to lead a team while continually reflecting on how we can be better ourselves. 

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