Leaders Pull

Leaders lead. Or do they? There is not always a cause and effect relationship between leadership actions and follower behavior. Not all leaders succeed at pulling people along in the same direction. If a leader needs to drive people in a direction, keeping the fringes from straying too far from the herd like so many cattle on the trail from Oklahoma to Chicago, are they really leading?

There are a series of neat binary choices that define lean-not lean in reference to mindsets, behaviors and operating conditions: waste versus value, batch versus flow, short-term versus long-term, hide versus expose, who versus why, push versus pull. These and others guiding principles help provide True North on the compass of continuous improvement. These apply as well to lean leadership as they do to designing discrete elements of lean operations.

I had the opportunity to work with the management team of one of our clients recently. They are about three years along on their lean journey, doing quite well but appropriately dissatisfied. The purpose of this session was to coach them on becoming better lean leaders. As we were discussing how to be better role models for the “not product-out but market-in” concept, a simple idea struck home: oppressors push, leaders pull. What does this mean?

One of the most common applications of this market-in idea for leaders is in the context of a lean transformation, to gain support and commitment for change. Pushing people into a new way of working is rarely effective beyond the very short term. Pulling people along requires not “selling the product” in terms of the features and benefits of a lean implementation but rather the market-in of ideas; leaders must address the needs, concerns and hopes of each individual. Remembering to listen and adjust language and focus during change management communication is the difference between market-in and product-out, between success and failure.

Within a production system, pull is used to enable flow where it does not exist naturally. Lean projects often work to link processes one-to-one whenever possible in order to minimize handling, waiting, batch size, queue time, inventory cost and the obscuring of problems. When this is not possible visual systems such as kanban are installed to enable pull between flows. People who enable flow by creating pull are leaders.

Where eddies and stagnation exists with in work flow, a leader arrives to pull some burden off of the overburdened process, either by redesigning processes, reassessing priorities or reallocating resources. The oppressor pushes for longer hours, high utilization and efficiency without stopping to ask why the work does not flow.
Leaders attract people with their ideas, character and actions while oppressors push people away with theirs. The people who cannot leave an oppressive boss feel stress, while those working for a leaders who pulls and challenges them feel a positive tension.

The person who enables free cash flow by linking the release and progression of work to the clear signal from the customer minimizes unnecessary work in process and helps to free resources this ties up. Such a person is not only a leader but a profit generator.

Market leaders pull customer to their products while oppressors waste resources pushing unwanted or inferior products and services. Any producer or service provider who knowingly creates, supplies or services without a firm customer demand is an oppressor – they are pushing rather than pulling in response to customer.

Anyone who asks (pulls) for ideas is a leader of discussions, a leader of problem solving a leader of continuous improvement. A person who is always ready with their idea but never ready to listen is an oppressor.

Sometimes leaders need to pull even though the direction is not at all popular. This creates tension among the people they lead. True leaders are skilled at moderating this tension, recognizing that tension exists when there is pull in two different directions. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as a person pulling in the wrong direction is still pulling and may be persuaded to align with the leader’s direction. On the other hand leaders who push against the will of the people they are leading are oppressors, creating stresses within a social structure that lead to fragmentation.

A leader is a person whom others follow. To rephrase the adage from TWI, “If the follower hasn’t followed, the leader hasn’t led.” Perhaps “followed” is a more accurate term for a true leader. But that word is a bit awkward so I would settle for “puller”.

4 Comments

  1. Matt Wrye

    September 7, 2010 - 6:45 am

    Great post. As a change agent you are drawn to the leaders that pull. Leaders that come and ask questions and are curious about learning more. Sometimes change agents want to work with the people that aren’t pulling. I ask why? Go where the pull is. It is more satisfying to work with someone that wants to learn. Plus, when they start doing well, people will notice and the pull will become greater. There will be less of a need to push.

  2. Janar Eit

    September 7, 2010 - 11:32 pm

    Absolutely great post Jon! I am going to use this view of angle and knowledge from today:)
    I especially liked last paragraph.

  3. Anonymous

    September 8, 2010 - 5:21 am

    Real leaders engage, connect and influence others towards continuous improvement and change. I view the “ECI” as representing a type of pull from a servant leadership role. In addition, I agree a certain amount of tension is needed or complacency begins to inhibit the ability to sustain what has been gained or could be gained through the change movement. Although our culture seems to be making progress, this type of leadership process is tough to adapt within our society. Therefore we just keep “pulling” through “ECI” to show the benefits for “WIIFM,” the team and the organization as a whole

  4. Joseph

    September 8, 2010 - 11:30 am

    Jon.
    Reading this post makes me recall, “Blue Skys Thinking.”
    People always talk about “Thinking outside the box.” This has become a bit over used (Stale). Many people are tying it to PUSHED change .
    Your photo could be showing a person PULLING the out come they want out of a situation.
    This may be a good time for Change Agents to start using ” Blue Sky Thinking ” to create a forum for PULL. It is more acceptable to people because it comes from the people and is not done to them. It allows for more creative thinking with no barriers. A real new age.Taking people to a place that they are happy to go to.
    To quote the Borg in the Star Ship Enterprise. ” Resistance is futile .” Let the people create the New World. You just don’t give them the keys to the family Jewels.
    A good Change Agent is going to lead people to the correct outcome any way. You just have to let them think they are in control of the process.
    To recall Google’s motto. ” Don’t be evil.”
    Remember if people are allowed to stand still then they are actually going backwards.