As an engineer, my natural tendency is to look at things from the perspective of how something failed rather than why it worked (though in my writings about Lean, I do both). However, the factors that cause failure are merely the antithesis of why things worked.

With that in mind, I offer you some guidance on how leaders fail in organizations striving to practice Lean management. By its converse, you can figure out what it takes to succeed with Lean:

  • Preserve organizational stability and order
  • Keep power and sources thereof
  • Retain large gaps in inequality or inferiority of status, etc.
  • Foment internal competition
  • Conform to existing metrics, policies, and practices
  • Intolerance of ambiguity
  • Closed-minded to new experiences
  • Change only when politically expedient
  • Require conformance to the leader’s worldview
  • Retain executive team prestige and distance from workers
  • Avoid compromise
  • Sustain fear, blame, and threats
  • Discourage or ignore feedback

These are a big challenge for the leaders of organizations. Why? Let me explain it this way.

When my students analyze Lean transformation failures, we find a broad array of methodological and leadership errors, particularly with respect to decision-making logical thinking. We see leaders preferring to remain socially dominant, and, despite talk of change, status quo oriented. They avoid the force of reason, remain committed to ideas or actions that have been discredited, and insist zero-sum (win-lose) outcomes are best. One can conclude such leaders are not serious about Lean, despite talk that indicates otherwise.

One thing that people have difficulty recognizing is that to do something well (e.g. golf, music, etc.), you have to learn how to perform certain fundamentals well over the long-term. This then leads to the ability to do other more complicated or nuanced things well. The leadership team at The Wiremold Company learned how to do certain fundamentals well in order to do Lean well:

  • Lead from the top
  • Apply Lean thinking to the entire enterprise (Lean is the strategy)
  • Personal involvement of all managers at all levels
  • Respect for people (employees and other stakeholders)
  • Customer-first
  • Kaizen
  • Achieve flow (takt time, one-piece flow, standard work, pull)
  • Make Lean fun

Organizations can go far if their leaders do a few Lean fundamentals well. It can go even further if leaders build on those fundamentals.

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