Why is Lean so hard?

by | Mar 22, 2018 | Lean Thinking | 0 comments

Okay – who’s hiding the Make Lean Easy Button?

As managers practicing continuous improvement, we know how Lean processes can improve safety, quality, and profitability. We want to capitalize on this value in our organizations.

We’ve worked with our teams to reduce process waste or implement workflow systems or visual management. We’ve had success we’re proud of!

But yet we find ourselves asking this question: “Why is Lean so hard?”

It seems like we have to muscle through too much. We haven’t quite achieved the culture or the sustainability or the team member innovation and problem solving we want.


One Big Problem in our Lean Transformations

So many of our continuous improvement efforts focus on business systems and processes. Our teams are going through a ton of change while our processes change. One big problem is that we forget to also improve and align our leadership.

We say we want team members to raise problems, but then when they do we still get frustrated because we think they’re complaining. We say we want team members to make improvement suggestions, but when they do we judge their ideas as “bad.” We say we are focused on the process, but when a failure happens, we still respond with blame and directives to “just fix it.” We say we want a team of problem solvers, but we still jump in to give the answers.

We can’t just transform our business operations – we also have to transform our leadership.  If we are using old-style traditional management in new-style Lean systems, things don’t work.

That’s what causes our start-stop-start-stop Lean implementation merry-go-round, the never-ending game of problem-solving Whack-A-Mole, and the perpetual improvement roller coaster ride.

Because Leading with Lean is different. The leadership principles are different. The leadership behaviors are different. And the leadership systems are different.


What is Lean Leadership?

There is no singular, agreed-upon definition of Lean Leadership. My definition of Lean Leadership is simply this:

Leadership beliefs, behaviors, and systems that support and advance value creation through Respect for People and Continuous Improvement.

Let’s break down this definition:

1. Leadership Beliefs, Behaviors, and Systems

Lean leadership is made up of all three. It’s your belief system and the way you think + what you do + the systems or processes you follow as a leader to create consistency and momentum. These are the What.

2. Support and Advance Value Creation

At the end of the day, Lean is about creating more value. This is traditionally thought of as creating more value for customers. I argue that we want to create more value for our customers plus our organizations, our team members and their families, our business partners, and our communities. Lean leadership both supports and advances value creation. This is the Why.

3. Respect for People and Continuous Improvement

Respect for People and Continuous Improvement are the two pillars of Lean, and therefore make up the foundation of How we advance value creation. It’s how we develop people and drive improvement.


How is Lean Leadership Different from Traditional Management?

Let me count the ways. Actually, I probably couldn’t count the ways.

When practicing Lean, we focus on creating more value. On the Lean principles of Respect for People and Continuous Improvement. We blame the process, not people. We encourage problem-raising and problem solving, transitioning from results-only management to Process + Results Leadership.

This chart highlights common differences between traditional management, which I call Results-Only, and Lean Leadership, which I call Process + Results.

Leadership Transformation from Traditional Management to Lean Leadership

Download a FREE PDF to assess and track your improvement in these fifteen Process + Results Lean Leadership areas!


Lean Leadership Transformation Isn’t Automatic

We don’t just “become” effective Lean leaders because we’ve started using Lean operations tools. We have to work at it.  Taking action is how we practice to develop our Lean leadership capabilities.

“The act of deeply thinking through problems, energizing people, and aligning them toward a common goal is the only way to practice and develop real leadership ability.” – Jeffrey Liker, The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership

There are all kinds of Lean management systems, techniques, tactics, and actions that managers leading with Lean use. Things like gemba walks, daily management systems, hoshin kanri, A3s, and the list goes on. But for those systems and tactics to be maximized, we need to make some fundamental shifts in how we think and how we naturally behave.


Take Action to Develop Lean Leadership

In the next few posts I will outline five leadership principles and behaviors to help managers practicing Lean transform from traditional management to effective Lean leadership. These are all shifts you can start making (or advance further) now.

Be sure to subscribe to get the details on each of these 5 shifts in the coming weeks:

  1. Lead with Respect for People
  2. Redefine Winning
  3. Put Results in Their Place
  4. Select New Heroes
  5. Solve Problems at the Right Steps

In the meantime, review the comparison chart I provided. Download a FREE PDF to assess and track your improvement in the fifteen Process + Results Lean Leadership areas included in the chart.

Are there any that you’ve nailed – that you feel confident in? Are there any that you’re not so sure about or think you may need some work on? Try to dig in to why – both on what’s working and what’s not. Awareness is often the first step.

I look forward to hearing your experiences as we move through this series, so be sure to comment!

Meet Jamie

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I’m a recovering Command-and-Control Manager who’s now on a mission to make the world of work more human. With a soft spot in my heart for Ops Managers, this Lean blog gives you the straight talk combining Lean, Leadership, and the real challenges of operations management.