Tips for Lean Managers

The 12 Herculean Labors of Lean Leaders

By Jon Miller Updated on June 29th, 2021

When we say that a task is Herculean, it means it is extremely difficult. Heracles was a Greek hero (Hercules in the Roman version) who got into some trouble for killing a member of his family in a fit of madness and was assigned a series of challenging tasks as penance. Sometimes we face Herculean challenges as penance for far smaller crimes, or even for doing nothing wrong at all. In fact, change agents and leaders learn that may times we are “punished” with seemingly impossible tasks for trying to do the right thing: to implement a lean culture.

Legend has it that for twelve years Heracles traveled all over the Classical world to complete a dozen incredible tasks given him by King Eurystheus. Here are the Twelve Herculean Labors of Heracles and what lean leaders can learn from them:

1. Slay the Nemean Lion!
This monstrous lion had a hide that was too tough to pierce with arrows. So Heracles stunned it with his club and strangled it with his bare hands. Then Heracles skinned the lion using the lion’s own sharp claws and wore its hide, after which he posed for the photo above.

Sometimes the lean leader needs to get their hands dirty and go do the job themselves. When everyone says, “Oh no, that problem is too difficult to solve” pull out your club, stun it and rip off its hide with its own claws. The solution to the toughest problem lies within the problem itself if you change how you look at it. If piercing doesn’t work, bash it. Once it’s stunned (problem is contained) look for locally available solutions (claws). Then use the “lion hide” or war stories of things you did yourself to gain credibility with people you are trying to teach and help within your organization.

2. Conquer the Lernean Hydra!
The Hydra was a beast with nine snakey heads. Cut off one head, two would grow in its place. Heracles overcame this problem by cheating. He sliced off all of the heads and then had his companion Iolaus cauterize the wounds with a torch so the heads wouldn’t grow back. Then as a souvenir, Heracles dipped his arrows in the Hydra’s blood and made them into poison arrows.

The lean leader faces many Hydras. Meeting after meeting, e-mail after e-mail, excuses after excuse, report after report, oh the list goes on. But learning from Heracles we need to find a teammate that can help us apply to fix the problem by applying root cause countermeasures. “Stay there and hold the torch until you’re sure the head isn’t growing back while I go cut off the others.” The poison arrows are a bonus: the next time someone gives the same excuse or calls for a useless meeting, apply one of your proven countermeasures.

3. Capture the Cerynian Hind!
The hind was a little deer with gold horns. Loved by the goddess Artemis, Heracles couldn’t simply club it and bring it back to the king without angering the goddess. Heracles followed the hind for a whole year until he found a way to carry it away without hurting it.

Lean leaders need to capture people’s minds and hearts without hurting them by being too directive or aggressive. This requires listening, observing, communicating, and waiting persistently for the right moment. Many lean leaders have angered the goddess of the waste hunt by trying to carry people along too fast.

4. Subdue the Erymanthian Boar!
This deadly wild boar lived on Mount Erymanthus and terrorized the people there. So Heracles chased it up the mountain and into a snowdrift, caught the boar, and took it back to King Eurystheus. The king, who owned a jar large enough to hide in for just such a terrifying occasion, did so.

Change agents and lean leaders must bravely face the one thing or issue that everyone is afraid of talking about. It could be a person who is essential to the team’s success, but whose behavior is eroding morale. It could be simply to openly challenge the status quo and to get people thinking. Drive it UP the mountain (elevate the issue) since eventually, the boar will run out of mountain to run up. Lean leaders should first hide the jar so the CEO can’t hide from the issue.

5. Clean the Augean Stables!
King Augeas owned a few thousand cows. These stables needed cleaning after 30 years of use. Heracles, recently back from chasing deer for one year, was given one day to clean this up. Using natural forces to his benefit, Heracles bent two rivers and made them flow through the stable, cleaning it right up.

Flow! Need we say more? Instead of shoveling the business equivalent of cow dirt, the lean leader must find a less wasteful way by harnessing the business equivalent of rivers. Whether it’s information flow, physical work flow, or otherwise, lean leaders must design work in ways that get dirty jobs done quickly with minimum effort, sustainably. While patience is a virtue, this labor teaches also that urgency is essential.

6. Silence the Stymphalian Birds!
A flock of killer birds with razor-sharp claws and beaks lived around Lake Stymphalos, and these Heracles first used a rattle to flush out of their nests and then killed with arrows tipped with Hydra blood poison.

These birds are akin to the people who stand aloof in groups and cast barbs and criticisms on the change effort. They have strength in numbers and the ability to stay out of reach. The lean leader needs to find a solution for bringing these people around or containing them individually, not as a faceless mass. The flock cannot be conquered. Whatever may be the change management equivalent of the rattle that disperses the flock and the poison arrow that is a sure counter to each of these deadly birds of prey, it is a Herculean task for a lean leader to find them.

7. Catch the Cretan Bull!
This insane, fire-breathing bull was kept as a pet by King Minos of Crete. Heracles had little trouble wrestling this mad beast to the ground and bringing it back to King Eurystheus, mission accomplished. Not much for insane fire-breathing bulls, the king set it free to terrorize Greece.

The insane, fire-breathing pet project of the senior leader… woe be to the lean leader who must take on this Herculean task. Who is wiser: the king who keeps the mad bull or the king who captures it, only to release it on his subjects? Some crazy pet projects need to be kept contained, or clubbed and quietly choked like the lion. The tricky part of this Herculean task is for the lean leader to manage the stakeholders, contain the mad bull project and protect the organization from its insanity.

8. Round Up the Horses of Diomedes!
The human flesh-eating horses of Diomedes, King of the Bistones were stopped when Heracles killed King Diomedes and fed him to his horses, thus making them tame enough to take them back to King Eurystheus.

A herd of horses naturally follows its leader. If the leader feeds them flesh, they become flesh-eating horses. Capture these horses and you have a herd of man-eating horses on your hands. This is trouble, not a conquest. The Herculean labor of a lean leader is to see through an organization that appears on the surface to be “hopeless” and identify the source of the corruption, eliminate that practice, belief, person, or persons from the organization and feed the people hope and truth rather than fear and mistrust.

9. Bring the Girdle of the Amazon Queen Hippolyte!
What started out as a seemingly easy task for Heracles went quickly awry when Heracles visited the land of the Amazons, where the Queen agreed to give him a girdle in exchange for the daughter of Eurystheus. But the goddess Hera spread the rumor that Heracles came to the Amazons as an enemy, and he ended up taking it by force.

The lean leader who does not effectively manage all stakeholders can easily become a victim of false rumors and sabotage. This is especially true when venturing into a very different culture, such as groups of physicians, design engineers, or executives. The strong lean leader may be able to take the girdle by force once but won’t make any allies that way.

10. Steal the Cattle of Geryon!
Geryon was a giant winged warrior with one head attached to three human bodies. His prized possession was a herd of red cattle. A two-headed dog and a giant guarded this treasured herd. Heracles killed these freaks and brought the cattle back to his taskmaster. Having plenty of practice poison arrows and monster-slaying at this point, the truly Herculean part of this task may have been crossing the Libyan desert.

The lesson here for the lean leader is pretty straightforward: if after a long journey we are confronted with 1) giant, 2) headed dog, and a 3) bodied winged monster which blocks our path to treasure, we must strike them down. The lean leader must not hesitate after a long, tiring journey across the change management equivalent of a hot, barren desert. Strike with vigor and accumulated skill to overcome the two-headed dog of indecision, the last guardian of the treasure and whatever other big freakish obstacle we may face.

11. Collect the Golden Apples of the Hesperides!
The Hesperides were nymphs in whose garden these golden apples grew. These apples were protected the hundred-headed dragon Ladon. Heracles worked out a deal with the nymphs’ father Atlas whereby Heracles would do Atlas’ job and hold up the earth for a time while Atlas fetched the apples for him.

At times the lean leader must take on the Herculean task of holding up the world while someone else implements the changes required. This may mean that the lean leader must be capable and prepared to step in as an interim manager and run the operation, either to stabilize a situation, safeguard a customer during a massive change effort, or simply to free up a senior manager who can personally lead the lean implementation while you run their operation.

12. Capture Cerberus!
For his final task, Heracles captured Cerberus the three-headed (sensing a theme?) guard dog of the underworld without the use of weapons. It was a simple matter of wrestling down the dog’s heads until it agreed to go back with him to King Eurystheus, who after mistaking it for an insane fire-breathing bull, set it free again.

The lean leader must figuratively grab those doubters and naysayers who are of two minds about lean: they see that it is good, but see how the organization is failing to address risks or do it properly. They are guardians of the underworld who say “no” to people who wish to leave the darkness do so for a reason. Wrestle with their heads without weapons, listening objectively, until they agree to come out into the light to see your view. Then set them free.

Learning from the 10 Labors + 2
The 12 labors of Heracles were originally assigned by King Eurystheus as the 10 labors. He added on two more because Heracles did not give Heracles credit for number 2 and number 5. He killed the Hydra not single-handed but with crucial help from his companion Iolaus. The stable-cleaning river method was also nixed by the King. What we can learn from this as lean leaders is threefold: take any help you can get even if it means you don’t always get credit for the task, sometimes it’s not lean but luck or market conditions that saves you so don’t fool yourself, and unintended consequences are part of accomplishing the Herculean labors, including additional labors.

To all lean leaders and change agents out there who struggle with these 12 and other Herculean labors, may all your lean improvement results be epic, your success stories be legendary, and may all the challenges you overcome be monstrous.

  1. Evan Durant

    June 18, 2010 - 3:20 pm

    Inspiring. Just plain inspiring. Thank you!

  2. John Santomer

    June 18, 2010 - 11:50 pm

    Dear Jon, All lean implementations can be likened to an Odyssey. A lot of adventures, a lot at stake. What is most important is the experience and the the lessons learned form each challenge…There is almost certainly a “take home” in each and every one…

  3. Joseph

    June 19, 2010 - 4:36 am

    My take on this is that lean is a “PLACE”. A State of mind.
    Read “IF” by Rudyard Kipling.
    IF you can keep your head when all about you
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
    If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;
    If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
    Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
    If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
    If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
    If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;
    If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
    Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
    If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
    And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss;
    If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,
    And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
    If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
    ‘ Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
    if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
    If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
    Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
    And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!
    Every one must find their own place and the strongest walls have bricks made of knowledge. Heracles used PDCA.

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