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How lean principles apply to your leadership team

February 18, 2022 -  By
Photo: oatawa/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Photo: oatawa/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Toyota pioneered lean manufacturing principles after World War II. These principles have found their way into many industries over the years, including ours. Consultant Jim Paluch of JP Horizons was instrumental in piquing the landscape industry’s interest in this topic years ago, as well as my own.

Recently, I’ve thought about the applications of these principles when it comes to the activities of the leadership team.

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

Lean fundamentals

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

Have you ever won a contract where you were not the lowest price? Provided the scope you offered was comparable to the losing bid, the customer was paying for the scope, plus something else. What was it? Whatever it was had real value for that customer.

Next, in lean thinking, it is paramount to appreciate that the ultimate mechanism for delivering that value is people. People deliver what the customer pays for. Respecting, dignifying and appreciating people is fundamental.

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

Many people consider lean to be the art of seeing and the science of reducing non-value-added activities. Companies use many tools, methods and ways of thinking to drive out this waste.

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

Lean and leadership

For leaders, who is the customer? Clients ultimately pay the bills, and we don’t want to lose sight of them. But many leaders don’t directly interface with clients regularly.
Leaders owe their value to their people, who can be considered their customers. What do their people want? What do they need? What is it that only leadership can provide? In my view, they should do the following to apply lean concepts to leadership.

  • Build culture. Share stories that highlight the wins, the goals and what to shoot for. Keep everyone level-set. Set the example for decorum, image, pace, punctuality, vulnerability, values and focus.
  • Develop relationships. Create community through group activities to build trust. Subordinates don’t generally ask the boss out to dinner, the boss initiates. The team’s interest in what you stand for and strive for is proportionate to how much you care.
  • Hold people accountable. High-performing teams hold each other accountable. Good coaches don’t tolerate bad play; good leaders shouldn’t either.
  • Be decisive. Make decisions on people, clients and equipment. Some of these decisions are difficult to make, but deciding is powerful. Not deciding is often devastating.
    Develop capabilities. Strong leaders develop strong leaders.
  • Improve processes. Well-designed processes ensure predictable, reliable results. Re-enforce the processes. When the right process is followed, it should yield the right results. Where the results are not met, effective leaders re-set the process.

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

Lean leadership is shaped around activities that engage people and foster relationships, accountability, knowledge and increased capabilities. Effective planning means putting these activities first. It does not mean trying to do more or working harder (never a good solution). It means maximizing and prioritizing the time you spend with your team and letting everything else come second.

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