Tips for Lean Managers

Leaning Into 2012

By Jon Miller Published on January 1st, 2012

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Many years ago when I was first learning how to drive a car, my dear young aunt Ruth rode with me on an Illinois country road. She taught me the importance of accelerating when going into a curve. This was deeply counter intuitive to me, as I had previously always tapped the breaks when hitting a curve in the road. I’m no race car driver, but this lesson has stuck with me, and I think of her whenever drivers tap their breaks on the local highway S-curves, a cascade creating completely unnecessary traffic slowdowns.
This year, more than any year in memory, is starting off both with curves and increasing momentum. I am looking forward to the challenges and learning opportunities ahead for us in Kaizen Institute. Mentally, I am leaning into 2012. Just as my aunt Ruth taught me, it is a time to be fully engaged in the process of change, driving forward faster even when the road changes course.
This got me thinking about the popular expression of “lean forward” and “lean back” entertainment, and whether the definition of “lean” as a business practice might not benefit from the other definition, meaning to incline in a direction. A “lean forward” medium such as the personal computer or internet requires a certain level of interaction, intent and engagement while a “lean back” medium such as television or radio requires only passive attention, and not even full attention at that. Similarly, lean management is approached by some in a lean-forward-and-engage way and by others in a lean-backward-and-watch way.
Lean management is about both acceleration and change. It requires that the drivers and leaders lean into the process, rather than frequently tap the breaks, confuse those who follow and cause the organizational equivalent of the dreaded S-curve slowdown. The only way leaders can accelerate change is to engage in it themselves, to get a feel for both the vehicle and the road, leading by example before delegation. All levels within an organization must lean into it, everyone must be involved in kaizen.
Practically speaking, this means going back to the basics and checking that customer expectations, standards, visuals, zones of control, objectives, team norms, responsibilities and lines of communication are all clear and direct. If you have to ask, it’s not clear enough. This means removing barriers to making improvement, often meaning that we must take time to break down larger problems into smaller, more actionable ones. At other times, it means removing whatever wall, policy, prop or paradigm that people are leaning against, leaning back in disengagement. Leaning forward, even when we fall, we have a chance to right ourselves and make stumbling progress.
May your roads be as straight and smooth as the ones running through Illinois corn country, may the grip of your wheels be firm and your acceleration smooth when the earth inevitably curves beneath you.
Happy 2012.

  1. John Santomer

    January 1, 2012 - 5:40 am

    Dear Jon,
    Happy New Year to you…I somehow do not see the lean in leaning forward. Take skiing for example, you lean forward bending on your knees to maximize shock absorption of uneven snow surfaces and let gravity work to your advantage while maintaining your center of gravity – all to gain more speed and reduce air resistance. In slalom racing, you can not go straight, one has to cut speed to turn around slalom poles without knocking them down or else be fined additional time for errors. Going straight and fast does not assure complete engagement nor does leaning back mean one is disengaged. Even if one does go faster in curves and corners, complete the course faster; what about additional re-work because of hasty implementation? Isn’t that also waste? Don’t you think that it should be a controlled speed with less pick-up time to accelerate that would assure the best time for completion even on curves? Having this right amount of speed, not making errors on the curves and with much little time accelerating in sustainability will ensure the best completion time for a timed and defined distance even on a curved course?


    January 1, 2012 - 10:48 pm

    Towards lean! Driving speed is most important for lean driver especially if curves and hurdles ahead in your path.
    As we know that lean are 80% culture and 20 % tools, if you want a smooth lean journey you must accelerate the culture change in your organization and in-fact the culture arrives from top to bottom, so everyone participation including top management is essential in lean house, remember that the head of the family (Head of department) is held-responsible to ensure the growth of lean behavior in his family.

  3. Bill Shultz

    January 4, 2012 - 8:03 am

    Hey Jon, your comment below is so true. Not only do the higher levels need to participate (to show ther commitment), we must get the lower levels involved. We must not do Lean to people, we do it WITH THEM. They must feel ownership of the process, so they buy into it, and it doesn’t become the program of the month (going back to old way one month later).
    “The only way leaders can accelerate change is to engage in it themselves, to get a feel for both the vehicle and the road, leading by example before delegation. All levels within an organization must lean into it, everyone must be involved in kaizen”.

  4. Jon Miller

    January 12, 2012 - 4:27 pm

    Hi John
    It’s not always possible to have the right amount of speed. Driving is not the perfect metaphor because in life / work, the road moving like a speeding conveyor whether your engine is on or not 🙂 There are straightaways and stretches where you can cruise – I am just not in one of them right now, so pedal to the floor…

  5. John Santomer

    January 13, 2012 - 9:17 pm

    Hello Jon,
    Ha ha! I like your comparison. Pedal to the metal then. Let’s see how the road twists and curves, there’s lesson to learn in every corner.

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