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Lean Leadership – The obligation to empower


Lean leaders have an obligation to provide the team members we are responsible for with the opportunity to improve their own work environment and processes. We must show them the way forward by leading by example and celebrate and recognize success as it occurs.

In the early stages, leaders must roll up their sleeves, and do improvement in their own work areas, learn the appropriate tools and apply them. After this, comes the opportunity to share this knowledge with team members and encourage them to do the same.

Leaders that are new to the lean way of thinking and the concept of ‘respect for people’ can struggle with this opportunity. It can be seen as an inconvenient chore, ‘a waste of time’ or something that interferes with ‘getting the job done’. Often they do not understand the long game and see improvement activities as something ‘more’ they have to do, merely an additional task in an already busy schedule.

Leaders that think this way are looking at the situation from the wrong direction. Being able to provide team members with the opportunity to improve is more like a gift than a chore. The more people in the organisation that understand improvement culture, and have been given the skills and opportunity to make change, the more powerful the organisation. What greater gift can we give our team members than the chance to own their processes and environment. Lean leaders ‘get the job done’ and develop people at the same time.

The other argument that is often put up by leaders that are new to lean culture is one of ‘perceived fairness’. Sometimes lean development in organisations is not uniform and some departments develop faster than others. This can have a lot to do with the maturity of the lean leadership in each area and the cultural challenges faced. This can lead to emerging leaders in the more developed areas complaining about an ‘us and them’ approach. Complaints such as “they aren’t doing this, why should we have to?’ are common.

To these leaders, the message is simple. If we waited for others to be doing improvement as a condition for us to do improvement, we would never do improvement. We can only improve ourselves and our own processes and set an example for others. How do we encourage others to improve? By setting the example. It would be a terrible thing if we withheld the gift of empowerment from our team members on the factory floor because the accounting department wasn’t doing improvement yet. When you look at it from this perspective it seems simple and obvious but the concept can be very difficult to grasp for some leaders.

Changing attitudes and culture is a long term process. There is no endgame, only a long road of endless opportunities. As a leader of leaders, the approach must be a commitment to the obligation of empowering team members to improve. In order to empower the newest employee, we must develop and empower our leadership first.

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