The Guessing Game of Lean Leadership

By Jon Miller Updated on August 12th, 2019

“Eliminate slogans and exhortations asking the workforce for zero defects” or other such improvement targets, Dr. Deming set down as one of his fourteen principles. Yet this piece of advice ignored by even the most dedicated continuous improvement-practicing organizations around the world. There is something about a slogan that leaders seem unable to resist. Perhaps it is a feeling of power, being at the center of attention. Or the expediency of one-to-many communication. Or even the satisfaction at seeing one’s own verbal creation adorn so many walls. Experience teaches us that slogans, all-hands speeches and carbon copy e-mail chains have their limits, but they persist.

Slogans are aspirational statements, catchy reminders for a brand’s identity, or pithy messages meant to communicate complex internal policies simply. By their nature, slogans aggregate ideas, contain assumptions, package meaning and expectations in ways that leave the door open for misunderstanding. The best slogans need little explanation. Bad slogans can reveal to the workforce the leadership’s thinking as being shallow and half-baked. The danger of slogans is that gaps between the words and actions of leaders cause people to believe that they don’t really mean it. Zero accidents? Is the management actually willing to do everything necessary to make this a reality? Or do they really mean, “As few accidents as possible, within constraints of our capital budget and financial targets”?

A slogan, or any form of communication, should not leave the listener guessing. But even the best two-way communication is not perfect. Even when we perfectly understand the words, we must sometimes guess intent, read between the lines. Advancing as a Lean leader requires that becoming a better guesser in at least three broad thinking areas.

What is the customer thinking? The essence of Lean management is to find out who will engage with us in a fair trade, determine their spoken and unspoken needs, and synchronize our product development and service delivery to those needs. Streamlining and continuous improvement are only possible when we know what the customer values.

What are my people thinking? The wish of a leader is to influence a group of people to take specific action in a unified direction, even when the leader is not watching over them. This requires that people be self-motivated and self-directing to some certain extent. What people are thinking is often the best predictor of what they will do.

What am I thinking? A leader’s self-awareness can be their greatest asset or their Achilles’ heel. Simply put, a leader disproportionately affects the lives of people around them by being wrong or right. As such they have a responsibility to swiftly recognize when they are wrong and correct it. This requires listening to our inner voice, teasing apart decisions driven by euphoria, fear or habitual reflexes from the carefully considered and fact-based decisions so that we can choose wise and prudent options.

In Lean management we say there are parts to any job: doing the work and improving the work. Too often we are in a hurry to find a formulaic approach to improvement. We are busy. We need to get back to doing the work. What is the template or tool we can use to make the requisite amount of improvement? This reduces Lean people development to training problem solvers. That is a business-friendly, outcome-oriented approach, and a good place start. Ideally, we help people to become better guessers, better listeners, and to have more disciplined minds. Lean problem-solving skills are be portable from job to job; good thinking is portable to all aspects of life.

We know that the brain is able to form new connections based on learning. Thinking literally builds the brain. Thinking about thinking makes us better at thinking. In Toyota plants, we see the slogan “Good Thinking, Good Products”. The idea of “products” is concrete. It implies a customer, a person for whom we are building good quality. On the other hand, “good thinking” is rather abstract. It invites questions. “What do we mean by good thinking?”

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