The word “leadership” gets thrown around a lot in business writing. Countless articles and books preach “first out of the trench”, but few of them give leadership the seriousness it deserves. 

Lean understands that a company’s leadership is either its driving force or the wall it runs into. A good leader sparks self motivation in employees and makes them want to do better. The principles of lean leadership are both elegantly simple and counterintuitive to corporate culture. 

In my last post I examined why lean initiatives often fail. Spoiler alert: it was leadership. Let’s find out what kinds of leaders make process improvement initiatives prosper.  

This isn’t your standard blog post. Below are 3 comparisons of Lean vs Traditional leadership traits. I’ve included questions so you can think about what kind of leadership is in your company. Whether you’re the leaders or not, be honest in your answers. Process improvement begins with transparency. 


What’s the leader’s Philosophy?

Dreams of short term revenue growth dance in traditional leaders’ heads. They ask “who” will do this and “who” will do that, all to push more product out the door. 

Lean leaders have a longer term approach, and care about margins more than revenues. Putting customers first, lean leaders build processes that react to customers’ pull. “Why” becomes a tool that streamlines processes over time and exposes waste.


Question #1: What is your leadership philosophy and, more important, do you practice it? 

Question #2: In your opinion, should business prioritize revenues or margins, and why?


What’s the leader’s Approach:

Most business models silo companies into departments, each with their own processes. Employees have little or no power to stop the processes: that power is in the corner-office.

Traditional leaders use spreadsheets to track their teams’ KPIs, ROIs, COGs and mistakes. When something goes wrong, they don’t find out until the news, via various data entries, hits their inbox. Reacting to what has already happened defines traditional leadership style.

Lean leaders empower employees to provide actionable input on wasteful processes. Instead of looking at last week’s spreadsheet, these leaders are present for today’s processes. They’re on the shop floor and at the morning meetings. They break down departmental silos so that the company becomes a unified, transparent system. They catch mistakes either as they happen or even before.


Question #3: What is an example of an employee providing feedback in your company? Was it acted upon and what was the result?


How does the leader deal with People:

Traditional leaders slot employees into functions. They create systems that sacrifice creativity for efficiency. Expensive consultants get hired for feedback but staff aren’t empowered to speak their minds. Traditional leaders set goals and provides feedback based on goal performance. No matter how many management seminars they attend, they are the boss and the sole problem solver.

Lean leaders are coaches. They put processes before goals, and dialogue with staff about continual process improvement. These leaders empower their staff, and staff respond by finding problems in processes before they erode profits. 

Lean leaders make people want to excel by giving them the chance to improve the processes around them. Our employees want to make our businesses successful: we just need to give them the chance.


Question #4: What is one process in your company that no one has examined in a while? Every company has them.