Leadership Goes Lean

August 27, 2008

Leadership Goes Lean
By Ted Garrison, The Garrison Report

For years I’ve argued that most books and programs on project management are seriously flawed. It’s not because what they teach is wrong, but it’s what they don’t teach. Effective project management is about leadership; it’s not about more or better tools.

The lean process is no different. When one Toyota executive was questioned about why some companies have not had success with lean manufacturing, he responded that the problem is that they integrate lean tools, but they fail to incorporate lean leadership.

In the extreme, too many people attempt to solve their problems through technology. In essence, if you want to increase productivity, you need to develop a process that eliminates the waste in the system. Once you have determined how to do it, then you can use technology to help carry out the plan. The perfect example in construction is the constant requirement to increase the complexity of the scheduling process with more and more sophisticated software. The problem is the software typically doesn’t eliminate the reasons scheduling delays have occurred in the first place. Usually it has to do with poor communication and lack of collaboration. To fix these problems requires leadership, not more complex schedules.

Unfortunately, too often management attempts to improve performance by increasing the controls. The aggressive, hard-driving executive issues orders and demands action or promises heads will roll, but often finds it’s his head that ends up rolling. A more effective approach would be increased collaboration with the workforce. Alex Warren, the former Senior VP of Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, summed it up in his quote in The Toyota Way when he said,

“Until senior management gets their egos out of the way and goes to the whole team and leads them all together . . . senior management will continue to miss out on the brain power and extraordinary capabilities of all their employees. At Toyota, we simply place the highest value on our team members and do the best we can to listen to them and incorporate their ideas into our planning process.”

However, the real secret of lean leadership is not that it involves the entire workforce; it’s about how they accomplish that goal. The lean leader rarely gives orders; instead he leads and mentors through questioning. The true leader recognizes his or her role is to ensure those who are executing the plans fit all of the following requirements:

  • Are qualified
  • Understand what’s needed or the desired results
  • Have the necessary resources
  • Have a plan that will work
  • Are committed

The best way to accomplish the above is by asking questions. When the leader simply explains the situation and requirements then asks the employee what he or she recommends, the leader learns if the worker is qualified to perform the task. If the employee offers a viable solution to the problem, it demonstrates that the person is qualified, understands what’s needed and has a plan that will work. The individual’s plan should address the necessary resources, or the leader needs to ask follow-up questions.

The only remaining question is this: Is the individual committed to the plan? However, this approach usually generates maximum commitment. The top two motivational factors for workers are being appreciated and being “in on things.” A simple thank-you does wonders. And how much more in on things can people be than if they are asked for their opinions?

The greatest compliment that you can give anyone is to ask for her opinion and let her act on her view. Why? It incorporates the top motivators. Instead of merely saying she is doing a good job, you demonstrate your confidence in her opinions and ability. This brings in the old adage “don’t tell, show!” You are clearly allowing the employees to participate in the solution, which is what they want. Study after study demonstrates that workers prefer to work on their ideas instead of someone else’s even if that someone else is the boss.

If you didn’t ask questions, you wouldn’t know if the person really knew what to do. However, if you ask questions and you get the wrong answers or solutions, you can ask additional questions until the person comes up with a workable solution. Notice I said workable solution. Resist the temptation to do things your way. Of course, their way must meet all the requirements, but if it works, let them do it that way.

The advantage of this approach is instead of telling people what to do, you coach them through the process so they believe the solution is theirs. The result is they will be highly committed to its success. No one wants to admit his idea wouldn’t work, but many employees would love to inform you that your idea didn’t work. In essence, the approach employs General Eisenhower’s definition of leadership, “the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because they want to do it.”

In the previous two months, I suggested that companies get everyone involved in the strategic planning process for several reasons, but as you can see, one of the key reasons is that’s that way true leaders operate.

For information about how Ted Garrison can grow your business, visitwww.TedGarrison.com.

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