The Importance of Lean Leadership Support

Leader Involvement

When the leader gets intimately involved in changes in the office or on the shop floor it sends a clear signal that improvement is important to the organization.  This is particularly critical at the start of a lean strategy, as it sends a visible message to those people sitting on the fence that this is the direction the company is going. There is no ‘opting out’.  Leader involvement is good for another reason.  By participating actively in the first few improvements, the leader gets a good feel for how hard the changes are to make, and what some of the roadblocks are.  As further improvements take place the leader can then act to cut through many of these roadblocks, and enable change to happen easier and faster.

The prevalent leadership style of the 1980’s was “Do as I say.”  This didn’t work very well because the power of teamwork was not totally harnessed.  In the 1990’s the leadership style in many companies was ‘empowerment’ – which often meant that improvements drifted away from the corporate strategy and vision.  In the 2000’s the leadership style for implementing Lean is “Follow me…”

One of the elements of successfully implementing change is having a leader that understands the importance of leading by setting an example consistent with the direction of the company.  They should not get caught up in the idea that change is O.K. for everyone except themselves..

Leaders, or Value Stream Leaders can walk the talk by making improvements to their own work by eliminating waste, and creating standard work.

Constantly reinforcing the lean strategy in every forum is one of the greatest contributions that a leader can make.  This gives everyone a ‘constancy of purpose’.  It keeps everyone on-track for making continuous improvement to the work.  They understand where the company is going, and their role in getting the company closer to that goal.

It is important for the Value Stream Leader to recognize that the people on their team are all at different levels of knowledge and experience.  Therefore, the leadership style should be very situational.  For example, a person with a strong finance background may be ‘empowered’ to make change happen with measures and indicators, but may need more direction and coaching when it comes to working with a union.

Good leaders assess their teammate’s needs constantly, and offer the right amount of direction and coaching, ranging from total empowerment to totally directed work – depending on the situation and talents of the people involved.  They also plan ‘stretch exercises’ that allow their people to expand into new areas, and bolster their expertise.

Value Stream Leaders need to understand that that their people basically fall into three groups:

  • Flag Carriers
  • Fence Sitters
  • Anchor Draggers


Flag carriers are those that have embraced lean thinking enthusiastically, and can’t wait to move ahead.  You need to harness the energy of these people and make the enthusiasm contagious.  Be careful not to turn these people off through poor support, or lack of recognition.  The caution here is that sometimes the leaders will focus on the poor performers and ignore the good performers.

Fence sitters are the vast majority.  They are waiting to see what will happen – because of lack of knowledge; or a past company history of ‘flavor of the month’ initiatives.  The best way to motivate fence sitters is to make visible improvements that they can clearly see in one area of the plant.  Once they see the benefits, they often jump on board.  Another way to get them motivated is to assign them to improvement teams that are filled with the flag carriers.  Often the enthusiasm is transferred.  Once you get a few of the ‘influential’ fence sitters converted, their peers will start to follow.  Remember, followers are looking for someone to ‘Lead’.  So, your job is to prove that you can lead and the direction is sound and will benefit them and the company’s future.

Anchor draggers are the most dangerous individuals.  They would rather not change, and like the way things are.  Often these people have been rewarded in the past for being good firefighters, and they would like to continue in this role.  They don’t clearly see the need to change.  The normal comment is ‘we have been successful doing it this way for years, there is no reason to change now’.

Anchor draggers are dangerous because they can drag down the others – especially fence sitters who can be swayed either way.  They do this subtly through hallway conversations, and delayed cooperation or through blatant resistive actions.

Anchor draggers should be dealt with using the following steps:

  • Make sure they clearly know what behavior is expected
  • Provide lots of coaching and positive reinforcement
  • Review progress on a frequent basis
  • Provide lots of education about lean and process management
  • Visibly reward those people who have exhibited lean behaviors
  • Have them work with experienced lean teams on improvements to gain experience
  • Have them visit other companies that are implementing Lean Thinking to gain another perspective
  • In the end, anchor draggers may have to be removed if they have not cooperated after reasonable opportunity to do so


The good news is that most anchor draggers will gain enthusiasm as they gain knowledge.  Once they have this knowledge, many of them become very strong supporters of the lean way of thinking, and become part of the strongest ‘flag carriers’.  If you have a problem with an anchor dragger on your team, make sure to consult your  direct boss and/or Human Resources, and Labor Relations for help in dealing with the issues.  Make sure you do take action.  You are not alone, every company has this problem.

Remember that different things motivate each person on your team.  Getting to know your team better will allow you to identify these things, and increase everyone’s level of motivation.

The Value Stream Leader will ensure that improvements are chosen that benefit their value stream as a ‘system’, rather than picking point improvements that may, or may not make a difference to the bottom line.  Picking the ‘right’ improvements is done using value stream mapping. A rigorous approach gives the best results.

When developing a future state map with your team, make sure that everyone has input into the improvements.  Chances are, you probably will not always reach team consensus – but if everyone feels that they have had genuine input, then the chances are better that they will move ahead as a team.  Remember that decisions are easier to accept if the decision process was based on data.

Setting numerical targets for improvement is a risky business.  Often targets are not nearly aggressive enough. Other times they were too aggressive.  Then you have the dilemma of what to do when people reach their numerical goals.  Do you raise it again, and how do you explain the continuous raising of the goals.  Numerical goals without a solid plan are just guesses and can cause unwanted behaviors from the staff.  How do you know what the future level of performance will be without a crystal ball?  In ‘Lean’ implementation, often the first ‘lean’ benefits that you will see are in freed capacity (floor space, lead time, equipment, people), and the time to see these results vary but they should be fairly quick and dramatic.

It has been proven through many case studies that setting targets can lead to strange behaviors.  People have a way of reaching their targets using any methods possible. (Sometimes not the ones we want).  The byproduct is usually waste. For example, a person could achieve their machine utilization target by over-producing – which is one of the worst types of waste.

Targets can also foster competition in a value stream – creating winners and losers.  For example, why would a logistics department spend a little more of their budget to give the plant operator a big benefit if they know they won’t achieve their financial target at the end of the year?

More important is behavior.  You will make good progress if you reward lean behaviors rather than numerical targets.  You will even want to reward ‘excellent failures’ where the team involved did their homework, took a calculated risk, and failed.  Your superstar may not be the person with the best numbers – it may be the one who is changing the company culture in a positive way.

Lean behaviors are those that focus on supplying value for customers, and eliminating waste.

Two key ingredients influence the behavior of people in an organization:

  • Personal Values
  • Standard Work


Personal values are difficult to change in the short term.  A person has developed these values through life experience.  One person may be able to personally rationalize ‘fudging’ to obtain a difficult targeted level of performance, while for another, failure would be preferable to any type of dishonesty.  Personal values can be changed, but it takes a longer concentrated effort to do so by the company – usually over months or even years of communication, leadership, and reinforcement.

Behavior is also highly influenced by standard work. (See separate section in this binder).  If the sequence and timing of specific steps are detailed through standard work then behavior is an outcome of following these steps.  The person either accomplished the standard work as defined or they didn’t.  If they didn’t, then problem solving can take place to see what the reasons are. Perhaps the person has found a better way to do the work?

Creating standard work is critically important to a lean strategy, not only because it drives out variability, but also because it dictates the required behavior of the people doing the work.  This is the reason that companies like Toyota focus so much attention on standard work. Note that good standard work is developed with the input of the people that do the work – not in a remote engineering office!  It is impossible to make the right improvements without standard work.

Remember that your ability to get things done doesn’t come solely from the ‘power’ of your position in the organization.  It grows as your team sees that you know what you are doing, are passionate about what you are doing, that you can guide them in the right direction, and provide the support needed to move ahead. It is a function of knowledge, ability, persistence, trust, effort, and attitude.

You can make it happen!