Since 1996, when Womack and Jones’ book Lean Thinking was published, Lean has evolved to the point where most leaders today know that it is more than simply a system of applying tools. They understand the importance of paying attention to the way the work is done to achieve results and engage people in PDCA learning cycles. They understand the leader’s role in embedding problem solving capability in people. And yet, there is something missing. Many are still only “applying” Lean to the organization rather than “becoming” Lean as a team.
Why do Lean transformations take so long?
Many leaders struggle with their Lean transformation. There is excitement and commitment to making it work; however, once charged with leading the “implementation,” they are often discouraged by the lack of engagement from others in the organization. Lean leaders will often blame the senior leaders or their direct reports for not being on board with the change. But that is not the problem. It is often those who are most excited about engaging in a Lean transformation who inhibit the process by failing to model the change they want to see. The role of the leader is to lead the transformation, not by dictating tools or principles, but by modeling new behaviors that change relationships across the organization.
Why? Employees mimic their leaders’ behaviors. These behaviors, over time, grow and become engrained in the culture of the company. Most leaders try to affect change as if they are not a part of the system. They try to make others change, but fail to reflect on how their leader behavior is influencing the culture.
The key is to model the skill of making respectful relationships
The skills required to create mutually respectful relationships at all levels in the organization are not necessarily inherent within leaders. But we can learn from the few leaders who have developed this capability.
In the early 1990s, I was privileged to meet a successful transformational leader named Clyde, who led a quick (one year), but powerful change in a plant in Cleveland, Ohio. When he walked into this plant—the lowest performing facility in the large multinational company at the time—Clyde noticed windows broken, a dirty and unappealing environment, and disgruntled employees. Within nine months, the employees disbanded their union, took personal responsibility for their performance, and created an exciting workplace. In just a few years, the plant was operating at the top of the company.
Clyde was a different kind of leader. He didn’t focus on financial performance metrics, but instead created respectful and trusting relationships with team members. He listened to their problems and took personal responsibility for helping them solve those problems. He demonstrated empathy. All of this made an incredible difference.
Leaders need to practice modeling these kinds of behaviors because they are what will enable the organization to “come alive.”
Leadership behaviors need to change, but habits are deeply embedded
Leader behaviors are more than behaviors; they are automatic habits. Our brain structure explains this phenomenon.
Over the last decade neuroscientists have learned how behaviors and habits are stored in the limbic area (the old mammalian substructure) and emerge without any influence from conscious thought from the cortex (the thinking substructure). Consequently, it is not possible to simply think your way to behave differently; you need to practice it. Even forming, and especially changing, habits require us to be mindful and focused as we reflect on and analyze our own behavior. Essentially, we have to decide to enact change. We then have to practice regularly and continue to reflect on our performance. Reflection and practice are essential for change. Ideally, as leaders, you are not just a facilitator of change, you are an inspiration for change in others.
Below are just a few ways to practice being the model for a meaningful organizational transformation:
Become a learner – In his book The Learner’s Path: Practices for Recovering Knowers, Brian Hinken describes the difference between knowers, who spend time focusing on what they know and can tell others what they know, and learners, who are observers that seek to learn from a situation. One way to build your learner skills is to pay attention to the social system in the present moment so that you can begin to understand the complexity of the problem situation. Ask questions like: Is the conversation a discussion, debate, or dialogue? Is there trust and safety in the culture? Keeping a focus on the interactions among people, instead of the individuals, is an underlying principle to living the lean transformation.
Create a respectful relationship with your employees – Listen to the problem situation from their perspective to demonstrate that you care. Start with humble, open-ended questions aimed at trying to understand their thinking about the situation and approach to solving their problems. Resist the temptation to impose your knowledge and your thinking! Believe that your team members are bright and valued contributors because they are. Support people when they need your help.
Create a problem solving culture – Help everyone to see that problem solving thinking is more effective than solutions thinking. Demonstrate this by asking questions that expose the reality of the situation. Most organizations throw solutions at problems with no clear understanding of what is causing the problem. Start with a problem that is tied to the output of the business, define gaps in the performance of the value-stream, identify potential contributors to the gap, and engage the people who “own” that area in effective problem solving. Show how these team members’ efforts directly connect to the health of the larger business system.
Structure your team’s learning (and your own learning) through regular PDCA cycles – A leader not only deeply reflects on his or her own performance, but also guides this reflection process with other members of the team. The discipline of conducting regular PDCA cycles of learning is something leaders must model. Learning how to facilitate these reflection sessions will create a safe environment for exposing the real problems and addressing them.
Many people assume that becoming lean is a decade long process. But really, it should be ongoing and fun. Significant and noticeable positive change in the culture can occur fairly quickly. At some point between the first and second year, depending on the number of people who are involved, you should see a tipping point where the organization naturally comes alive. Ideally, it doesn’t take long to see improved performance fueled by high energy and a team of people who are fully engaged in working holistically and creatively toward a better future state.
Along these lines, it is critical to acknowledge that you, as the leader, are attempting to build skills alongside your team members. You have to live this change, or you will simply not be able to realize the full potential of your organization to make this cultural transformation.
Modeling respectful relationships with your team may not be easy or feel like your highest priority work, but it will change your work, your organization, and your life.