Lean Leadership: Empowering Instead of Instructing

Much can be learned from Lean Man­age­ment: Under­stand­ing the val­ue for the cus­tomer, then iden­ti­fy­ing the val­ue stream and opti­miz­ing the flow to avoid unnec­es­sary effort and last but not least ensur­ing con­tin­u­ous improve­ment. How­ev­er, the focus should not only be on the appli­ca­tion of oth­er and bet­ter meth­ods, but also on a dif­fer­ent lead­er­ship cul­ture. The sec­ond pil­lar of the Toy­ota Way there­fore is respect for peo­ple. At the core of Lean Man­age­ment are the peo­ple as its essen­tial suc­cess fac­tor. The mot­to of Lean Lead­er­ship is there­fore “empow­er­ing not instruct­ing “. This prin­ci­ple deserves to be dis­sem­i­nat­ed at least as vig­or­ous­ly as the well-known con­cepts and meth­ods of Lean Management.

The rise of Toy­ota after the Sec­ond World War is inex­tri­ca­bly linked with the name Tai­ichi Ōno He has sig­nif­i­cant­ly influ­enced and fur­ther devel­oped the Toy­ota Pro­duc­tion Sys­tem. What is today known as Lean Man­u­fac­tur­ing and more gen­er­al­ly as Lean Man­age­ment orig­i­nates large­ly from him. As a result, Toy­ota suc­ceed­ed in sig­nif­i­cant­ly increas­ing pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and not only catch­ing up with the Amer­i­can com­pe­ti­tion from Detroit, but out­per­form­ing it. The con­cepts and meth­ods spread not only in the man­u­fac­tur­ing indus­try but in many oth­er indus­tries — includ­ing IT, where the Agile Man­i­festo can be inter­pret­ed as an appli­ca­tion of lean prin­ci­ples to the process of soft­ware devel­op­ment.

The inven­tion and intro­duc­tion of some ground­break­ing con­cepts and meth­ods by an inge­nious engi­neer, as this hero sto­ry might sug­gest at first glance, does not suf­fi­cient­ly explain this suc­cess­ful trans­for­ma­tion of Toy­ota. The basis of this trans­for­ma­tion was rather the change in lead­er­ship. The indi­vid­ual work­er was no longer seen as a pas­sive­ly affect­ed object, but rather as an active­ly involved sub­ject of change.

Stan­dards should not be forced down from above but rather set by the pro­duc­tion work­ers themselves.

Tai­ichi Ōno

In his book “The Toy­ota Mind­set, The Ten Com­mand­ments of Tai­ichi Ohno” (Ama­zon Affil­i­ate-Link) Yoshi­hi­to Waka­mat­su, who worked many years direct­ly under Tai­ichi Ōno, reports the fol­low­ing anec­dote. Dur­ing a vis­it to a Toy­ota plant, Ōno was accom­pa­nied by a man­ag­er. This man­ag­er noticed some mis­ap­pli­ca­tion of the Toy­ota pro­duc­tion sys­tem and asked Ōno why he had not cor­rect­ed them imme­di­ate­ly. The answer was:

I am being patient. I can­not use my author­i­ty to force them to do what I want them to do. It would not lead to good qual­i­ty prod­ucts. What we must do is to per­sis­tent­ly seek under­stand­ing from the shop floor work­ers by per­suad­ing them of the true virtues of the Toy­ota Sys­tem. After all, man­u­fac­tur­ing is essen­tial­ly a human devel­op­ment that depends heav­i­ly on how we teach our workers.

Tai­ichi Ōno

This exam­ple illus­trates the basic phi­los­o­phy under­ly­ing Lean Lead­er­ship. Instead of cor­rect­ing or teach­ing, the aim is to empow­er. A cor­rec­tion of the process­es from the out­side would only tack­le the symp­toms in the short term, but would not result in any sus­tain­able change. The only way to achieve this is to improve the empow­er­ment of the work­ers based on a deep­er under­stand­ing of the principles. 

This lean lead­er­ship phi­los­o­phy enables the indi­vid­ual work­er to active­ly con­tribute to change and con­tin­u­ous improve­ment — and the result­ing broad impact makes the deci­sive dif­fer­ence in such a trans­for­ma­tion. That should be remem­bered again today, where in many com­pa­nies the agile trans­for­ma­tion is reduced to the intro­duc­tion of blue­prints and frame­works and thus comes to a dead end.

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