Tips for Lean Managers

The Three Indispensable Qualities of a Lean Leader

By Jon Miller Updated on May 22nd, 2017

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…

  1. David Moles

    March 23, 2010 - 1:05 am

    I’d suggest Bugs Bunny, but I think the licensing costs would be prohibitive.

  2. sharma

    March 23, 2010 - 4:48 am

    Dear Jon,
    It was great reading this article. I am glad that you really lost this “sale” to this abusive customer, as you deserve better clients.
    I was amused to see the OSTRICH in the heading of this article. There is something strange about this bird. It is said that when an OSTRICH sees its enemy, it buries its head inside the sand, leaving the rest of its body visible, and eventually gets trapped by its enemy.
    OSTRICH is a similie used to describe people who run away from their responsibilities, or believe that sometimes just ignoring a problem solves the problem.
    This is highly in contrast to LEAN THINKING.
    Hence, I do not agree for an OSTRICH as an MASCOT for curious, communicative and change-friendly lean leader.
    I think for frugality – COW,
    for teamwork – ANTS,
    for curiousity – MONKEY,
    for communication – DOG.

  3. Jon Miller

    March 23, 2010 - 6:28 am

    Thanks Sharma.
    I didn’t mean to represent this client as abusive. We are good friends and the exchange was filled with good humor (I think).
    I believe the animal in the photo is an American Turkey. I chose it for it’s expression of curiosity.

  4. John Santomer

    March 23, 2010 - 8:06 am

    Dear Jon, yes it is an American Turkey. And although it may pass through the first 2 qualities – it may fall short on the last (Changing). I’ve never seen a performing Turkey before in my whole life. I think the best candidate may be drawn from the Primates family. A Silver Back maybe? Chimps were taught to communicate in sign language and used by NASA in its first space explorations. They have displayed decision changing comprehension from repetetive programs of reward driven exercises. The Silver Backs have leadership qualities that ensure the survival of the Gorilla troop. Also possible close candidates will be the Balckbacks and the chimpanzees. I saw this movie entitled INSTINCT by Anthony Hopkins-1999 although Mighty Joe Young and Gorillas in the Mist are also good Gorilla movies to watch. From these, one may see that Gorillas have a very complex communication patterns of grunts, growls and body signals.

  5. Roy Waterhouse

    March 23, 2010 - 8:22 am

    It does take an incredibly strong leader to change an organization. I believe it has to be driven from within at a high level or the long-term benefit will lose out to the short-term extra work.

  6. Anonymous

    March 24, 2010 - 6:56 am

    Very good article. Everyone in our field of work will sooner or later be asked this question. I admire your stance and response. In regards to the mascot. I feel that nothing other than a mammal could come close representing lean leadership. My vote would be for the delphís.

  7. Kent Vincent

    March 24, 2010 - 8:52 am

    These soft side of leadership traits will no doubt fail to resonate with North American “git’r done” style management which counsels taking the hill on a charge even if no one follows. That applies as much to Lean as any other initiative. I still see change management guides that assume the “leader” is the one who stands firm and digs his heels in while naysayers from below resist– never once allowing for the existence of constructive, curiosity-driven subordinates or even for a leader who might learn an alternate path from an experienced subordinate through a socratic style dialog. Add to that the distorted corporate belief that every positive trait or aptitude must be quantified in a resume bullet or validated by a stamp of approval on a piece of paper, and you’ll continue to get the reaction you got from your trusted client, only with even less good-natured humor.

  8. Bob R

    March 24, 2010 - 9:20 am

    I enjoyed the article. I does what it is intends – to make me think. Sorry I don’t have a mascot idea.

  9. Andy

    March 24, 2010 - 4:26 pm

    I had a concept in my head some time ago, making a play on the three monkeys, “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”. How about a monkey giving an open handed “I don’t know” expression.
    It says that a lean leader does not presume an answer.
    It says “Why can’t we?” instead of “we can’t”.
    And it contrasts with the other three monkeys, who are in denial of their problems.
    The “Know no evil” monkey might not be a perfect leader, but he’s a pretty good one… and getting better.

  10. Doc Campbell

    March 25, 2010 - 8:28 am

    Great article Jon, all three attributes do hit home, “C cubed”. I once was doing a counseling session when an older woman asked, “are you still growing?” to another, younger person in the group. The younger person was perplexed and inquired. The older woman said, “if you are not growing, learning and changing then you are dying.” While rather abrupt in response, it fits within what might be Lean values. As far as a mascot, how bout a platypus? They have adapted and continue to adapt to their environment and we humans still can’t figure out how they still exist.

  11. Stuart

    March 25, 2010 - 9:48 am

    A great article.
    I propose the Dolphin for its abilities of Curioisty, Communication and Change

  12. suomita

    March 25, 2010 - 10:48 am

    Thanks for a great article. I liked especially the statement that lean leader should find out why the solution does or does not work. Leaders/organizations are typically aiming to get it to work – without building deeper understanding.

  13. Shilo

    March 25, 2010 - 10:50 am

    Enjoyed this article Jon and love people’s comments on different mascot ideas.

  14. Anonymous

    March 26, 2010 - 5:25 am

    Good article and responses.
    I don’t know if there is a single answer. People come in all shapes and sizes introverts, extroverts, sales people, git’r’done types, smart, not-so-smart, able-in-area-A, able-in-area-B….
    Isn’t the same true for able lean leaders?

  15. Aman Bhardwaj

    April 2, 2010 - 3:09 am

    I like the article, I also liked the way other readers corelated the picture in the article with the qualities of the LEAN LEADER. This helped me again to realize that People conclude more by seeing anything than reading it. That is why, Visual Signs always help. All the Best

  16. adrian tomlinson

    April 17, 2010 - 9:05 am

    nice use of analogies, i think your lean mascot should be a super hero a lean version of cleark kent , mostly because the main reason people sit where they do in the food chain is our inate ability to be curious, (not stupid) communicative(but not shouting) and ever changing to adapt to our surroundings in a world that is change itself .Ithink though that no course will ever replace experience , leadership can be taught but then you relearn how to put it into practice just like any skill.

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