People-centric leadership helps ensure Lean success

People-centric leaders are focused on growing people and process improvement and they work hard to build ever higher levels of trust by ensuring each and every employee understands they and their contributions to the business are valued by leadership.


Image courtesy: Bob Vavra, CFE MediaEven though businesses have been implementing Lean for about 20 years a 10 percent success rate is often quoted in the lean community. This dismal result is due to a lack of the right kind of leadership for lean doesn't fail—management fails.

Most senior business leaders fall into the category of "dollar-centric leaders." Dollar-centric leaders focus on the bottom line and see people as resources to help them make the numbers. Employees whose contributions are deemed insufficient are quickly and emotionlessly discarded for dollar-centric leaders believe it is their responsibility to cut staff to make the numbers. Dollar-centric leaders invest their energy and time growing sales and the bottom line. The culture in these businesses is unsettling and unstable and fear is ever present. Therefore Lean will not and cannot have any lasting impact on businesses led by dollar centric leaders for lean is a trust building journey. Trust does not exist in a workplace gripped by fear and uncertainty.

A different style of leadership that almost guarantees lean success is people-centric leadership. People-centric leaders are focused on growing people and process improvement. They work hard to build ever higher levels of trust by ensuring each and every employee understands they and their contributions to the business are valued by leadership. They invest their energy and time in growing their people knowing those efforts will lead to long term business success and growth. These leaders are rare which is why the lean success rate is so low.

So the question dollar-centric leaders have to ask themselves is: "How can I begin to earn the trust of my reports?" Engagement and empowerment are the answer. Empowerment is letting go and trusting others to make the right customer decisions. A simple example is giving workers approval to respond to pull signals (kanban signaling) versus relying on a forecast driven work order system when responding to customer orders. Engagement occurs when those same employees take ownership of the customer delivery process using kanban signaling. This example highlights the requirement for managers and leaders to extend trust first before getting it in return.

Another Lean tool that can be used by leaders to engage and empower the workforce is Lean safety. Leaders who embrace Lean safety quickly recognize the many benefits that result. They include an improved safety culture, process cycle time gains and a growth in trust that leads to an engaged workforce. Also noteworthy is the fact that it will dissipate resistance to lean and will garner the support of management, unions, supervisors and the workforce. That is because it answers the critical all important question of "what's in it for me" for all stakeholders. The sole focus of Lean safety is to make work safer and easier therefore it provides an ethical approach to lean implementation.

To address the issue of making work safer and easier, leaders are required to go to the where the work is performed and engage their workforce. Since lean is 30% technical and 70% social these engagement opportunities require a change in management style. Managers who historically were both skilled at and were expected to tell people what to do must change to a coaching style of leadership. They must now ask the right questions rather than have the right answers. It should be understood that when supervisors and managers tell people what to do it both perpetuates parent child relationships and it removes the responsibility of the employees to solve the customer service problems that exist in the business. A Lean Safety Gemba Walk provides leaders the perfect opportunity to begin two way adult to adult conversations about continuous improvement with the initial questions all being safety related.

Leaders who understand and practice engagement and empowerment have the opportunity to change their behaviors and become people-centric leaders. Using safety as the first point of engagement almost guarantees their success.

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