How Lean Principles Apply to Your Leadership Team


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Toyota pioneered lean manufacturing principles after World War II. These principles have found their way into many industries over the years, including ours. JP Horizons consultant Jim Paluch helped pique the landscape industry’s interest in this topic years ago, as well as mine.

Recently, I have been reflecting on the applications of these principles in relation to the activities of the management team.

The distractions and pressures on your company’s leadership team are endless, but the time is not. Without being yet another time management tool, can lean principles help leaders clarify their values ​​and make better use of their time?

Lean Fundamentals

Lean principles cover a lot of ground, but let’s consider a few basics. Lean always starts with determining what the customer wants. In business, we tend to make it complicated. We can simplify it by asking, “What is the customer paying for?” To the extent that money represents value, we can identify value through analysis of the transaction.

Have you ever won a contract where you weren’t the lowest price? Provided the scope you offered was comparable to the losing bid, the customer paid for the scope, plus something else. what was that? Either way, it had real value for this client.

Then, in Lean thinking, it is paramount to understand that the ultimate mechanism to deliver this value is people. People deliver what the customer pays. Respect, dignity and appreciation of people are fundamental.

Lean is also about reducing and eliminating waste. Toyota, and many other companies, have proven that identifying and reducing non-value adding activities or steps in a process can dramatically increase productivity. There are non-value adding activities in almost every process.

Many people think of lean as the art of seeing and the science of reducing non-value adding activities. Companies use many tools, methods and ways of thinking to hunt this waste.

Finally, lean is about continuous improvement. Continuous improvement is not an aspiration in lean organizations, it is a requirement.

Lean and leadership

For managers, who is the customer? Customers end up paying the bills and we don’t want to lose sight of them. But many leaders don’t interact directly with customers on a regular basis.
Leaders owe their value to their employees, who can be considered their customers. What do their people want? What do they need? What can only leadership bring? In my opinion, they should do the following to apply Lean concepts to leadership.

  • Build culture. Share stories that highlight victories, goals, and what to aim for. Keep everyone level. Set an example for decorum, image, pacing, punctuality, vulnerability, values ​​and focus.
  • Develop relationships. Create community through group activities to build trust. Subordinates don’t usually invite the boss to dinner, it’s the boss who initiates. The team’s interest in what you represent and what you seek is proportional to your interest.
  • Hold people accountable. Successful teams hold each other accountable. Good coaches don’t tolerate bad play; neither do good leaders.
  • Be decisive. Make decisions about people, customers and equipment. Some of these decisions are hard to make, but deciding is powerful. Not deciding is often devastating.
    Develop capacities. Strong leaders develop strong leaders.
  • Improve processes. Well-designed processes ensure predictable and reliable results. Strengthen processes. When the right process is followed, it should yield the right results. When results are not achieved, effective leaders restart the process.

If that sounds like a lot of time with your people, it is. Added value occurs when leaders are in the room with their people (physically or virtually). Leaders may not be able to escape time spent in front of a computer screen, but as urgent as that sounds, it’s not the real value.

Lean leadership is shaped around activities that engage people and foster increased relationships, accountability, knowledge, and capability. Effective planning means prioritizing these activities. It doesn’t mean trying to do more or work harder (it’s never a good solution). This means maximizing and prioritizing the time you spend with your team and letting everything else come second.


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