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Monday, September 1, 2014

The secret sauce of lean leadership

Lean Nation,

I have been very blessed in my life.  I have worked for and with many companies.  Some were large and some were small.  Some were publicly traded and some were private.  Some were union and some were non-union.  Some were high tech with new products coming to market and lots of automation and some companies were low tech with lots of labor.  But most importantly, some had great leadership and some had atrocious leadership.  I am now convinced that every job was a stepping stone to something better, even though I couldn't see it at the time.

This is a lean blog, though, and I am pretty sure no one cares about my work history.  But I took two important learning's away from this experience. The signs had always been there, but they were never clear. The signs were solidified about a month ago in a conversation with a 40 year lean veteran.  I asked him what are the keys to creating a culture of improvement .  He said unequivocally the key is leadership.

I asked him to be more specific.  He said leadership needs two skills to be successful at improvement. The first is not a surprise.  He said that leaders need to hold everyone accountable to follow standard work.  This means staff and management.  This means "special" employees like physicians and engineers, and lawyers. And this means leadership like directors, chiefs and vice presidents.

I see in many organizations that the staff is held accountable. But the further you get from the staff,  the less accountability there is.  This creates many problems, but most notably, lack of leadership standard work drives the majority of the waste in the system.

The second leadership skill is the ability to create a tangible vision.  While lean at its most fundamental, is about seeing and eliminating waste, sometimes the entire system is so wasteful, it needs to be totally re-designed.  While many leaders agree with this statement, many fail to act in any meaningful way.  The risk of failing is too great.  The culture change too large. We will upset people.  This has worked in the past. Look how we benchmark....The list goes on.

One way this plays out is the creation  a fuzzy strategy, with unattainable or un-measurable goals. The lower levels of management, in an attempt to meet the strategy, embark on multiple and frequently competing initiatives. This results in limited improvement, poor results, and lots of frustration.

Great lean organizations have a clear vision and strategy.  There is no guessing on the approach, measures or expectations.  And they don't dodge the unpopular issues, sacred cows, or silo-ed organizational structures. There are no untouchable employees.  Everyone participates and every is accountable.  Transformation is the goal.

So looking back on my career and my consulting practice, I can attest that every transformation that failed was because of a gap in one of the two leadership skills. Either the accountability framework was not in place, or leadership did not have the courage to create the correct and clear vision leading to sub-optimal results and no culture change.

How's your transformation going?

Lean Blessings,


Ron Bercaw
President and Sensei
Breakthrough Horizons Ltd.
2 time Shingo award winning author


  1. You are providing informative information. I really appreciate your effort on putting such thoughts in the blogs. Lean Transformation.

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