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Leading Lean, Like Pioneers or Privateers?

By Jon Miller Updated on April 13th, 2015

lean privateerSeveral recent conversations with a few seasoned lean thinkers, authors and experts have made me aware of an emerging belief among them that the corporate “lean initiative” or “lean implementation” or “lean program” is doomed to failure. My personal experience with the former hasn’t been all bad by any means. I’m not ready to say that the corporate lean implementation doesn’t work. Listening to them, it is often the case that these lean experts were unable to see meaningful and lasting change during their tenure as advisor or sensei, often a 2 – 4 year period at most. During this time they were tasked with guiding the organization to the promised land of lean results. What this land looks like to you differs, depending on what you plan to do upon arriving there, whether your fellow travelers see themselves as pioneers or as privateers.

In my experience this disillusionment with corporate lean programs is partly a due to a gap in expectations setting, i.e. what the customer thinks they are buying in terms of “lean implementation support” and what the lean experts think they will be delivering. The expectations gap is primarily one of timescale. All customers want the consultants out as soon as possible. The consultants know that the client will need their help for a long, long time. But this is a commercial issue, the smallest obstacle and easiest to fix. There is a greater gap in timescale. The average tenure of the CEO of a Western company is 4 years. In many corporate environments, armed forces, and public sector roles, senior leaders are rotated every 2 years. Aspiring leaders must move up or move out. This is a so-called best practice and common in many management development programs of blue chip companies. How likely is it that a constancy of purpose is achieved when the leaders’ eyes are on what comes next for them, not what  is now? Lean cultures take a minimum of 5 years to begin to take root in an organization of reasonable size. For the largest and most complex of organizations, it will take far longer. For very small companies, the change may be quicker, resources and focus allowing. This is by no means to suggest that the lean journey is nearing its end at 5 years, only that the organization has built enough belief in the results that come from lean, learned enough lessons from success and failure, and most likely has wavered and recommitted to the lean journey at least once. And not least, the organization will have suffered or enjoyed replacement of a senior executive supporting lean. The lean expert planting seeds to be harvested in 5+ years may not satisfy the hunger of a corporate lean program.

What, then, can we expect from the executives who will spend only a few years in the leadership position influential to the success of lean? This really depends on whether this leader has the mindset of a privateer or pioneer. Do they see lean as an opportunity for battle and plunder, or for exploration, learning and reaping benefits from settling new lands? The lip service that most executives supporting corporate lean programs pay to lean is that it is a long-term journey, while emphasizing that the quarterly numbers must increase (and with it, their bonuses and their personal advancement). In the past few years, the truism “there is no long-term without the short-term” became corporate executive gospel. No doubt a consultant above my pay grade came up with it as an antidote to the pesky long-term focus talk of lean experts. It is used to justify a focus on quarterly earnings while championing a long-term lean culture change. This rings a bit hollow. The executive is paid for the short-term gains, and doesn’t often stick around for the long-term. Consultants are guilty of the same. Meanwhile the people who are paid the least and being least mobile, stick around for the long-term. No doubt Lean must pay its way by delivering results through improved revenue, safety, quality, delivery and cost. The timescale gap between executive performance evaluation and compensation, and the time required for the organization to see deep-rooted gains, is perhaps the largest obstacle to the success of corporate lean programs. The only ship captain who sets sail in an undermanned ship full of holes on a stormy ocean is the one who plans to scuttle it and jump to the first ship he plunders. Too many corporate lean programs are fueled and funded by similar plans to plunder, reorganize and downsize the organization. While reorganization is arguably necessary in some circumstances, there is an inherent conflict of interest when leaders profit from plundering and scuttling their own ships. There is more than one way to pay for the short-term. It is the responsibility of the senior executives to properly scout, map, route, plan, outfit, and equip with guides their organization for the journey that is the corporate lean program.

How effective would a ship’s captain be, motivating the crew ahead of a long voyage of exploration, learning and discovery, all the while with a parrot on one shoulder, punctuating sentences with “Arrr!” and hoisting the jolly roger? The cognitive dissonance of this ship’s crew is the same one felt by people when a leaders talks of the long-term lean journey but acts mainly in the interest of short-term financial gain. By definition, any lean implementation, program or initiative is a lean-in-progress. Lean is never finished. Even after it becomes a way of life for everyone, every day, the best lean organization always has more work to do in order to be prepared to weather future storms. Lean never really begins. Executives cannot pretend to launch, implement, drive or accelerate a lean program. There have always been improvement efforts, people dedicated to customers, teams improving quality, and so forth, even if it was not called “lean”. Effective lean leaders must bring these people along, borrow the best of their knowledge and explore new frontiers of how lean thinking can be best applied to the serving needs of today and tomorrow. I believe that the best lean leaders have the pioneer spirit. They see their surroundings with new eyes. They see new possibilities where others may see untamed land. They are first to enter into new and unknown territory, to try new methods, to learn from mistakes and persist until they have built a frontier settlement to pass on to the next generation to further develop and expand.

  1. Rob Thompson

    May 7, 2015 - 4:06 am

    Unfortunately Lean is typically something that people apply as part of a special initiative. Lean isn’t an initiative. Leaders have to inspire a new culture and mind-set. By definition, they have to … well, lead! Leaders should direct and participate. They should also think about the shadow they cast. Sometimes it’s not just the big events or changes that matter. It’s the small, everyday activities that trigger the success or failure of a lean transformation.

    A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.
    ~ John C. Maxwell

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