Why Won’t Senior Leaders Attend My Lean Training?

By Jon Miller Updated on April 16th, 2017

Nothing focuses the mind like…

Most words that end this sentence are rather unpleasant. The hangman’s noose. Being shot at. Impending death. What these have in common is that they limit our future options. They are constraints, making us aware of how precious is our time. Lean is concerned with making the most of time by enriching the time we have and wasting less of it. Going down this path often begins with a spot of Lean training.

There is a lively discussion Linked In about Lean training for senior leaders, with 53 comments and counting, sparked by Mike Wroblewski’s question

Why is it that very, very few senior leaders, CEOs, Presidents ever attend training sessions on lean or continuous improvement? Do they think they already know what is being taught? Is lean something that is delegated? What a wasted opportunity to learn and set the example!

I won’t summarize the conversation, but invite you to join it.

Mike raises a good a rhetorical question; Is lean something that is delegated? Lean, like much of the detailed work of implementing the strategy and managing the business, is delegated by the senior leaders of many organizations. That is almost the definition of the purpose of an organization. We work with others so that we can share the load. A hallmark of a small business or mom-and-pop growing into a well-managed business is proper delegation of duties beyond the founders, owners or partners. Lean is no different.

Senior leaders hear “Lean” and think “Operational details. Delegate. Check on results.” Advice and coaching among senior leaders is often along the lines of “don’t get caught in the day-to-day”. They are supposed to keep eyes on the big picture, work on long-term strategy, develop the next generation of leaders, spend more time with customers, improve the company’s image, and so forth. These are congruent with the “what” of Lean. It is also important to agree on “how”, and this is where difficulty arises when we ask leaders for transform both results and the process of getting them.

If we accept that much of Lean implementation, deployment, or transformation will be delegated by the senior leaders rather than be the bulk of their daily work, what we expect from them is a certain set of leadership behaviors that support and sustain Lean. This does require a certain grasp the Lean basics: waste vs. value, problem solving / A3 / kata / PDCA / kaizen, visualization of performance. However, there is no general consensus on how much. Should the senior leader personally lead the Lean transformation, elbows deep in kaizen events? Should they be able to coach the “doers” and comment intelligently on their A3s? Must they be literate in details of TPS and able to spot fake Lean? Visibly going to see, asking why and shaking hands? Or need they simply be able to avoid embarrassment and able to let others take credit? When we ask for all of the above, we tend to get none.

How well do we understand the behaviors that we need senior leaders to engage in on an individual basis? How well do we grasp the degree of personal change? What’s in it for each of them, at what cost, at their particular point in life and career? Unless we grasp value to each customer we are just pushing a batch when we deliver Lean training for senior leaders.

How well do the Lean trainers out there understand their premium customer, the senior leader? What are their burning questions? How does our Lean training answer them? Where is the “pull” for Lean training? Senior leaders have power and responsibility disproportionate to the time they possess. We all have 24 hours, with different demands on our time. Nothing focuses the mind of a Lean trainer like having only 90 minutes to get through to the senior leadership. What would you put on the agenda?

  1. alex KUBI

    April 25, 2017 - 4:24 am

    …John, that is a very telling question. I have had a bad and a good experience with C-Suite level leadership. First I would say they usually wand what they do not know. I say so because, they hear about how Lean, or Kaizen has improve this and that company’s performance …what they do not ask is what does it take to go through the numerous programs religiously, for results to to start to be felt organisational wide.

    Despite having a very in-depth presentation of their situation with fact from the initial assessment, you will find these very same leaders falling back to their old ways that lead them to looking for your… One reason is that is synonymous, is the transparency the Lean or Kaizen activity bring along… some do not like their hidden bad practice (financial disclosure i.e. tax remittance, underpaying employees) which comes out often a time when one establishes facts and wanting to mark where the current position of the company is so that one can measure the efforts after 6 months, one year or two years… this is one of the painful think that one successful project went through positively and now a leading company within the sector after a 2 years program. I may say this is my experience, probably there are other issues… who knows…

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