John McCullough, Continuous Improvement engineer at Sharp, explores the key principles needed in a lean leader.

The decision for an organization to embark on a lean journey is a big first step. It is a decision based on the belief that using a lean philosophy to guide the business is the best strategy for market dominance.

Sharp believes that fundamental lean concepts such as providing maximum value to the customer, commitment to consistent good change, and pursuing perfection are what will move our business to higher levels of excellence. This journey will be both exciting and challenging, and in the spirit of lean, will never truly be over.

Sharp will always be reaching for new heights. The single most important factor for making progress in our journey is leadership. Like a ship without a captain, a lean journey without lean leadership will cast the organization adrift.

1. Commitment

It almost goes without saying that a lean leader is committed to the journey itself. They realize that this is not something that will go away or something that can be faked. Lean, fundamentally, is a way to think, which in turn is reflected in how we work. It is not just a program, it is not just a portfolio of projects and it is not a simple deliverable to be checked off.

They believe in the direction the organization is headed and are catalysts for change. For every hard-earned improvement, the lean leader is committed to maintaining the improved state through being patient and diligent, while providing consistent feedback to their team. They understand that without positive praise and constructive criticism, their team will not be successful in adopting “the new way”.

2. Humility

The lean leader is always thinking long-term and considering what needs to be accomplished to move towards perfection. As part of forming their vision of the future, they regularly practice critical self-reflection (Hansei) and share the outputs of their reflection with their peers and teams. In turn, peers and teammates are committed to helping each other improve and do so without judgment. Everyone in the lean organization believes that we can always do better.

The lean leader is also insatiably curious: curious about new possibilities, learning new things and experimenting. Since they are always curious, they are never afraid to admit when they don’t know something. They fundamentally believe that there is always a better way to do something, if only we try to discover what that new way is. They relentlessly challenge the current state and encourage others to do the same.

3. Customer-focus

Lean leaders understand that business begins and ends with the customer. They look at business activities from the perspective of value to the customer and identify waste with the intention of reducing or eliminating it through structured problem-solving. In a lean organization, problems are literally made visible for anyone to see and then systematically worked on by those closest to the work. It is the lean leaders’ job to spot problems as soon as possible. This is accomplished using tools that make it easy for the leader to know what is and isn’t happening. Common tools for this are 5S, visual metrics, issue boards and visible standards. Once problems are visible, they can be discussed and a decision made on what is to be done.

Lean leaders always make sure the communication loop is closed with the problem originator. Problems in a lean organization are worked on by those closest to where the problem occurs. Lean leaders keep their team focused on problem-solving because they know the more problems solved, the easier everyone’s work becomes. Beyond the higher-level problems that the lean leaders themselves are working on, they allow smaller problems to be solved by the team themselves. Lean leaders prevent themselves from hindering the creativity and energy of the problem-solving teams but always ask the right questions to prevent the team from failing.

The lean leader is quick to communicate, celebrate, and share their team’s successes and recognize that their observation and feedback as a leader is crucial to maintaining improvements.

4. Honorable

Every leader should be authentic, do the right thing and be respectful to everyone but this is particularly embodied by the lean leader. They also lead by example and put the needs of their team beyond their own needs. They sincerely apologize when they make a mistake. Since the main role of the lean leader is to support by coaching and developing people, they are transparent, honest and, most of all, available.

They frequently go to where their people are working (Gemba) to see what is happening and who needs help. The lean leader understands that if they only show up when things are bad or they need something from their team, the team will be less likely to share their thoughts and feelings with them. They devote a portion of their time every week to coaching their direct reports because they believe people are our greatest investment.

The lean leader also ensures key activities rely on processes, not people. They understand that bad processes beat good people, and are quick to attack processes, never people.

These principles are by no means exhaustive but touch on some critical thoughts and behaviors of lean leaders. They are also, to some extent or another, an ideal; something that no one can do perfectly. A lean culture begins when leaders start placing an emphasis on desired behavior and displaying the traits themselves.