It takes leadership for Lean success

Friday October 02, 2015
Written by Sue Via, Techsolve
Oct. 2, 2015 - Have you truly succeeded at Lean?

When I first started to write this column on Lean manufacturing, I decided I wanted to talk about why so many companies struggle to implement Lean. After all, isn’t it just a matter of the management team directing people to do certain tasks? Although, we can see from the results, it is not that simple. In fact, one major component is usually overlooked that should not be taken for granted, and that is leadership.

Looking back on how Lean was presented in the 80s and 90s, we talked about top management support and how middle management would definitely need to change. However, we really didn’t address how critical it was on top managers’ management abilities, and what did we mean when we said that middle managers would need to change? Instead, the top management team voiced their support and continued to manage how top management teams have been taught to manage since the 1930s. Middle management on the other hand was left by the wayside. Although they were told they needed to change, they were not given a clear message on how to change. As a result, the message from top management was, Do as I say, while middle managers went underground and continued to operate within their comfort zone.

Did you notice that I referred to them as managers and not leaders? This, to me, is why companies fail. They value managerial skills, not leadership abilities. They let ROI’s determine what they do versus how they do it. This means they have not considered the people aspect. For instance, people obey managers, they follow leaders. What’s the difference? Managers are people in authority who have worked their way up the ladder, typically at the expense of others. Leaders, on the other hand, work with others so that they all win regardless of personal gain.

To illustrate, I remember an incident many years ago that got me to reflect on how I impacted the associates on my team. We were having a weekly status meeting and I mentioned we needed to clean up an area. I stated that it was no big rush but it should be worked on when they got the opportunity. Ten minutes after the meeting, I had all my engineers at my desk telling me the technicians were out cleaning up the area but they had other work for them to do. I apologized and said that I thought I had made it clear it was not a priority and I did not expect them to put it ahead of other tasks. The engineers’ response was, “It doesn’t matter, you wanted it.”

It was my first smack-me-in-the-face experience of how you could influence others to do something you wanted simply by mentioning it. Of course, I asked myself why they were so eager to fulfill my request and my next aha moment was that it was recognition of my support of them. I was a very vocal proponent and I treated them as equal to any of the engineers. I was both a little pleased and humbled by the experience.

Leadership is not just what you do but how you do it. It’s about a consideration of fellow employees who you treat with respect, consideration and value. It’s about setting an example and doing things for the right reasons, regardless of ROI, and being the first to volunteer. It’s about working to create a win-win environment where the credit is shared by the team and the individuals. It’s about being honest and open. It’s about stepping in and working with your teammates side-by-side in a crisis.

So, what is a leader? Simon Sinek, a leadership expert, probably summed it up best when he said, “...We call them leaders because they will choose to sacrifice so that their people may be safe and protected and so their people may gain.” If you are struggling with your Lean implementation, it just may be because when you look at your team you see individuals who do what they are told — no more, no less. If so, then your challenge is to develop a team that follows you because they respect and value how you work with them.

As senior project manager of Techsolve, Sue Via uses her 32+ years of experience in manufacturing as a foundation for implementing and teaching Lean principles.

This column previously appeared in the September 2015 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.

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