A poor way to teach lean

For better or for worse, I’ve seen my share of new CEO’s and executives during my career.  Many of them had taken over businesses that were either under-performing or simply not profitable, so their mission was to improve the performance of the organization.  Many of these executives also embraced Lean, so I’ve experienced the initial push of a Lean transformation attempt in many ways.

My least favorite is the “Do it my way or hit the highway” approach.  I’ve seen it twice – once it worked, once it didn’t.  And the one that worked only worked while the leader was in charge.  Whether that’s because his tenure was less than two years (presumably because none of the other executives could tolerate him) or because it was his way and not the overall organization’s philosophy, it didn’t work long-term.

Here’s an overview of this hardline approach to Lean transformation.  I’ll focus on the one that jut doesn’t seem to work, and provide my insights as to why it worked in the other case.  Granted, it’s only two data points, not statistically significant, but I hope I don’t go through enough of these types of failures to get to a statistically significant conclusion.  Maybe I’ll leave that to McKinsey or some other consulting group.

So the “My way or the Highway” starts off strong.  “We’re doing Lean.  If you can’t get on board, find the door, or I’ll show it to you myself.”  It’s ultimate command and control, I’m the boss mentality.  The C-level or Senior VP uses it to intimidate and get the attention of his next level group of leaders.  On one level, the new executive just seems like an arrogant jerk.  So in my opinion it starts the relationship off poorly.   It builds walls and delays the development of trust and real transparency.  In the scenario where it worked, the executive spent time one on one with his team, outside of work as well.   He worked to find out who knew and understood lean philosophies and who needed to be pushed. But he couldn’t build the relationship with those he didn’t connect with, and therefore struggled to teach and develop his team.  So he often replaced them.

Speaking of development, this is the type of leader who will send  huge white papers or recommend reading a book as a way of learning a concept.  He doesn’t want to work hands on with is team, but he wants to critique every aspect of the plan.  In the case of the failed implementation, I actually saw a 200+ page white paper sent via email at the 90 day mark  of his tenure.  The basic theme of the email was that we haven’t made significant progress in the first 90 days in any country of the organization, so read this white paper and give me your thoughts on how we can implement these concepts.  There were over 200 concepts in the paper “What’s the corporate strategy?”  “What are we trying to improve?”  Those are the questions that should have come up.   But it was clear, this guy wanted it all, and he wanted it now.

Could you imagine a college professor giving someone a text and saying “See you in 90 days for the final exam.  Oh – and the book is in a foreign language.”   What these types of executives miss is that Lean really is about developing people while simultaneously developing improved processes.  I describe lean leadership as  having the “farmer mentality.”  I’m sure I picked it up from somewhere.  But you need to prepare the field for planting, plant seeds, nurture and tend the seeds.  You can see whose growing and whose not by the business results and by the questions they ask or don’t ask.   But you need to actually go and see – you need to be there.

Sound familiar?  It’s because lean works in any process.  You just need to understand that everything is a process, but also that every process is in some way unique.  So the approach of trying to apply  Lean as a recipe rarely works, just as the thought that whatever it is you are doing can’t be described as a process is almost always false.

The application that worked was because the executive had the ability to replace people he needed to and he had great natural ability to recognize patterns.  He could spot what changed in a facility since his last visit easily – even the smallest things.  So he could ask for a 30 KPI dashboard that had 2″x 2″ line graphs and immediately see the areas that needed attention.   But nobody else could without studying the charts, and he often publicly berated and humiliated people who didn’t see what he thought was obvious.  It just falls in line with the attitude and both leaders of this type did the same – they would publicly tear down members of their staff.

But the successful guy succeeded because he was always on the road and was regularly in each of his locations, observing the gemba.  He used his charts to verify what he had already seen.  He knew what he was looking for, and for those that weren’t starting at zero with lean, he gradually taught them the why’s and how’s of his madness.  The other counterpart that saw no results from Lean didn’t bother – he just sent presentations, emails, and had meetings from remote locations demanding improvement.

I guess luckily, I was never subjected to mistreatment personally in either case.  I guess I just wasn’t important enough to waste time on.  But why did I stay at the organizations?  Well for one, I tend to have an optimistic outlook and like to believe that all people are inherently good.  I experienced the scenario that worked first, so I drew from it to determine the next steps of the second scenario.  Quickly I could see the flags, because the aspect of staff development was non-existent.  But honestly, to spend a career looking for things to make better, you must to be able to see the improvement; the potential for a better scenario – the Future State.  So often, I go through rough periods at work by looking at the potential for positive results and evangelizing Lean to others – plowing the fields, so to speak.

So if there are poor ways to lead a transformation, there must be better ways too, right?  As a follow-up to this post, I’ll cover some positive ways of teaching and leading during a lean transformation.  Here’s the takeaway for this post: lean is about developing people.  The people improve the processes. Grow your people, grow your business.


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