This is the back story to the first Lean leadership course in higher education.

To my knowledge, I was the first full-time university professor to teach a graduate course in Lean leadership in the spring of 2001. I created this course because of the profound differences between how conventional businesses are led compared to how Lean businesses are led. I learned this first-hand as a manager while working in industry, informed by training that I received from Shingijutsu and my own research and study of leadership.

The course, “Leading The Lean Business,” was created for students in M.B.A. and M.S. in management degree programs. It was designed to clearly highlight the differences between conventional leadership and Lean leadership, and give students the practical knowledge needed to help them become Lean leaders. Importantly, my course did not focus on Lean tools as other graduate-level “Lean Leadership” courses did some 5 or six years later (and which were based on an operational excellence theme). My course was a true Lean leadership course.

syllabusThe image to the right shows the first page of the syllabus. Click on the image to view a .pdf file of the entire syllabus. The course description reads:

“This course presents the defining principles of leadership and organizational development for lean businesses. Comparisons will be made between management behaviors and decisions common to businesses that lack process focus versus businesses that follow well-defined processes designed to eliminate waste. Behaviors that fully support lean production are presented and demonstrate the alignment and integration of leadership with fundamental operating practices and business objectives. The importance of precise communication and its effect on leadership effectiveness and credibility are also emphasized.”

While the course description reads:

“This course is designed to enable the student to develop an advanced understanding of leadership behaviors and how they are actualized in manufacturing or service businesses dominated by either batch-and-queue or lean practices. Students will learn how to: a) develop interpersonal (“soft”) by skills using “hard” business skills, b) differentiate between behaviors that add value and those that are waste, c) simultaneously improve both personal productivity and operating performance using a single management system. The desired outcome is for students to recognize and value the leadership and behavioral components of work in lean businesses and apply this solution to their own workplace. Use what you learn in this course!”

At that time, the focus of the course was leadership behaviors. Today, the course is completely different, and Lean leadership behaviors is just one part of what constitutes effective Lean leadership. You can read more about that here, here, here, and here.

I developed and taught “Leading the Lean Business” early in my teaching career, so the way I taught it was similar to the way I learned how to teach from my professors (taking examples of good teaching practice and not using the bad practices). But, instead of using a textbook for the course, I used four trade books. The image below shows the books I used the first time the course was taught:


The first book, The Human Element: A Course in Resourceful Thinking by Thomas Cleary, presents critically important elements of Eastern philosophy that inform the respect for humanity dimension of Lean management (Toyota Production System and The Toyota Way). The second book, Toyota Production System by Taiich Ohno, is normally read for insights into Lean processes and methods. That was not how I asked students to read the book. They were given specific instructions to read the book through the lens of leadership behaviors. Ohno’s book provides dozens of important details on leadership behaviors if one is prompted to look for it.

Next, students read Toyota Management System by Yasuhiro Monden to understand how the seven functional areas of business are interrelated in Lean management, compared to the stand-alone nature of the functional areas as my students experience it in conventional management (Note: Monden’s books on Toyota’s production and overall management system are truly the best and should be read by anyone interested in Lean management). Finally, students read Shankar Basu’s book, Corporate Purpose: Why It Matters More than Strategy, which closely examined Toyota senior management’s strategic decision-making in relation to the company’s purpose, principles, values, and objectives. In other words, the book explored the question: Is Toyota senior management consistent between what it says and what it does? The answer is “yes,” and how Toyota leaders do that is eye-opening.

This was the starting point. Having come from industry and trained by Shingijutsu, I continuously improved the course the following semester and each semester thereafter. Learn about the “Lean Teaching” pedagogy I developed in my book, The Lean Professor, which provides a detailed chronological account of my approach to continuous improvement and respect for people in teaching. Click here to see how my graduate course, “Innovative Leadership,” is taught today (enlarge the image to see course details).

One thing worth noting is that university courses often use thick, expensive textbooks. I have always avoided using textbooks, preferring thinner trade books written by great authors. These days I do not use books at all. Years ago I began to apply what Shingijutsu taught me about making low-cost improvement in kaizen. It is called “Moonshine,” given to us by Chihiro Nakao, the Father of Moonshine, which means to develop “…valuable solutions to problems by creatively adapting materials that are already on hand.

Textbooks are expensive, they focus on theory rather than practice, the information is often wrong (especially when it comes to Lean management), books are used once, and books are then sold at a loss or lay unused because they are not seen by most students as valuable source of information for future reference.

Use found and easily created materials (print and images) to educate students and ultra-low cost visual controls as a valuable source of practical information for future reference. Together, they produce great results.

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