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Is lean leadership just great leadership?

The principle of lean manufacturing isn’t new. It has long been held as an enterprise-wide strategy for achieving excellence by creating value (from the customer’s perspective), creating a culture of continuous performance improvement and working to eliminate ALL waste of resources, and by creating high quality, stable processes and emphasizing respect for people throughout the organization. With the benefits to the bottom line well documented, it’s no surprise that the C-Suite have adapted these principles for all aspects of business, becoming what is now termed lean leaders. But are the traits of lean leadership any different to the traits that a successful leader has always demonstrated?

What are Lean Principles?

Lean is a continuous process improvement methodology consisting of five primary principles:

  1. Value (from the customer’s perspective)
  2. Value Stream (map the steps in the value stream)
  3. Flow (create a smooth flow)
  4. Pull (the right amount pulled at the right time, no more, no less)
  5. Perfection (elimination of all waste in the value stream)

The many benefits of Lean

The Manufacturing Advisory Service has carried out thousands of business improvement projects in thousands of manufacturing businesses and reports the following average improvements in businesses operating within lean manufacturing principles.

SCRAP -26%
SPACE -33%

How does Lean translate into Leadership?

Good leadership is essential if a business is going to achieve its goals. Traditional leadership has always had a focus on the bottom line. Profits at the expense of everything else. The best leaders, or lean leaders, are of course still focused on profit, the lifeblood of any business, but not at the expense of the various stakeholders involved along the way. The most successful leaders now have to wear many hats in order to drive success in their organisation. They act as a mentor, student, teacher, communicator, problem solver and perfectionist in the pursuit of driving customer excellence and value.

Other traits of a leader cited as being key to lean leadership mentality, are persistence and authenticity. Creating a strong sense of purpose in the organisation, with clear goals and a path to get there, as well as reflecting on and learning from mistakes along the way, are crucial to long term success. So too is supporting and encouraging others whilst accepting accountability for any mistakes. Lean leadership traits talk about having respect for those around you and being an upstanding member of the team. Traditionally this was just known as the ability to be a team player and inspire and encourage individuality. In a recent article in the Telegraph, author and psychologist Daniel Goleman, talked about the role of self-awareness and emotional intelligence in leadership. Although these have always been important, it may be true that managing emotions in the workplace has become more necessary due to the speed of change and increased real-time business visibility. With that said, no leader has ever risen to the top and achieved great things without persistence, intuition and without leading by example.

Lean leaders don’t give orders. They present ideas that are in the best interests of the business and learn from front line employees to understand the way they work and ensure continuous improvement. The goal here is always to add value, and in doing so, a great leader will inspire their team to work harder and more efficiently, resulting in better business outcomes. According to a Harvard Business Publishing report, Leading Now: Critical Capabilities for a Complex World, “Leaders must always be prepared to adjust their strategies to capture emerging opportunities or tackle unexpected challenges.” This is a key trait in lean leaders, yet something that the best leaders have been doing since time began. If they hadn’t, we wouldn’t have seen the likes of Facebook, Apple and Amazon take the world by storm.

In conclusion, lean leadership principles aren’t new. They are the qualities that have always distinguished a great leader from an average one. The key to lean leadership is institutionalising these principles in the everyday culture of the business, and embedding them through repeatable behaviours that demonstrate expectations to the wider organisation and encourage exceptional performance.

If you’re looking for high performing leaders in your business, we have established an extensive network of proven talent. Give us a call on 01937 541395 to see how we could help.

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