Recently an old friend asked me to recommend a curriculum for certifying the lean leaders within their company to a more advanced level. The basic requirements for leading lean implementation, as with any change effort, are fairly standard: practical knowledge of the technical aspects such as lean, practical knowledge of how to teach effectively and practical knowledge how to manage change. Presumably the “advanced” practitioners would need more learning through repetition in these areas as well as some deep expertise in a narrow aspect of lean, under the guidance of a coach.
“Would you like a curriculum built around that?”
The client was not satisfied with this fairly standard definition of qualifications for a lean leader. This emphasis was not on the lean but on the leadership. The discussion led to a simple question:
“What are the three indispensable qualities of a lean leader?” And the always helpful requirement from a customer, “Don’t over think it.”
Asked this way, it forced me to answer clearly and directly based on what I believe. As a highly subjective, intuitive, nearly off-the-cuff answer, here are three indispensable qualities that set the master apart from the excellent lean instructors:
1. Curious. The master of any craft is endlessly curious, ever exploring the limits of their own craft, long after others have recognized their mastery. The master who is complacently confident in their craft is the one who is easily surpassed by a curious student. While in theory lean is very mathematical and straightforward, in practice it is highly intuitive and full of sticky and non-linear people factors. The more one learns, the more one learns there is more to learn… Asking why is the sure sign of a thinker, or at least a listener and both of these are basic prerequisites to effective leadership. The lean leader who wants not confirmation that their solution works, but to understand why it does or does not work will be the most successful in bringing about lasting change.
2. Communicative. There may be wise men atop the proverbial mountains, and while they may be masters they are not leaders of others. As hermits they lead by example in retreating from the world. Leaders engage people in learning and change. Some lean masters are like this and while they are great in their own way, they may not be great lean leaders. The advanced lean leader must be an effective communicator, both helping the curious to remove their ignorance and in helping the incurious change their errant ways.
3. Changing. Lean is about change, and lean itself changes and adapts with the times. Curiosity and two-way communication are both useless unless they result in learning, and learning is useless unless it results in change. The lean leader must practice as well as they preach. The advanced lean leader must be a living exemplar in the principles they teach.
“You wouldn’t last three minutes in front of my guys with that hogwash.”
These were not the his exact words, which I have softened to maintain the PG13 rating of our blog. His essential objection was that just as some people (according to him) are born leaders, people either inherently do or don’t have these three qualities.
“Perhaps my answer sets the bar uncomfortably high, my friend?”
There are certainly classes to improve one’s communication skills. There may be effective workshops for changing one’s mindset towards greater openness to change, and perhaps even a course to nurture curiosity… but now we are getting close to changing the nature of a woman or man. And that was not what my friend was shopping for.
I do believe that the continued practice of lean management principles, tools and systems must result in people becoming curious, communicative and more open to change. If not, how can we say that we are truly practicing these things? When we stop asking, teaching and changing ourselves towards the good we are just going through the motions of a lean system, not acting as lean leaders. As such, the curriculum for lean mastery may be just be another decade of faithful practice of the basics.
“You do realize you just lost the sale?”
“It’s nice to have had the choice.”
The cat, the crow and the chameleon maybe the animals best known for curiosity, cawing and change but they are not the animals to emulate. The curious cat meets death, the crow in groups becomes a murder and the chameleon is a convenient fellow who shifts only to suit his surroundings. These animals don’t belong on the lean leadership totem. We’re now taking suggestions for the mascot of the curious, communicative and change-friendly lean leader…