6 Key Traits of a Lean Leader

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Research states that ‘46% of all improvement initiatives fail due to lack of leadership’1. Taken with other evidence, clearly more work is needed to develop lean leaders. But what is a ‘Lean Leader’? What makes a Lean Leader different from a ‘normal’ leader? What special competencies are required to be considered a Lean Leader? This article, by John S. Hamalian, will explore the topic of Lean Leadership: a critical - and often neglected - element in business management and improvement.
Much has already been written on Lean Leadership. Jim Womack and John Shook at the Lean Enterprise Institute (LEI) describe the evolution of leadership models as going from ‘Do it my way’ (old Dictator style) to ‘Do it your way’ (1980s Empowerment style) to ‘Follow me … and let’s figure this out together’ (Lean style). Michael Balle talks about the ‘Lean Attitude’ of Methodology, Obsessiveness and Practicality. Toyota legend Fujio Cho summed up Lean Leadership in three simple phrases: ‘Go and See’, ‘Ask Why’, ‘Show Respect’.
I have had the honor to witness several fine lean leaders throughout my career, and would like to share with you my perspectives on Lean Leadership, which are inspired by and I believe quite aligned with the existing literature.
6 Key Traits of a Lean Leader:

Trait #1: Journey Embracement
Lean is a Journey. It is not a quick fix nor a Program of the Month. Far from being a mere operational tactic, Lean should be an integral part of the overall business strategy. Only after identifying ‘True North’ and a strong sense of purpose can an organization understand how to apply Lean to enhance performance through the increase of value. All of this requires long-term thinking, patience and a sustainability mindset. An interviewer of former IBM CEO Sam Palmisano noted he ‘is as focused on the next 10 years as he is on the next quarter’. Another key leadership behavior related to this trait is the ability to perform Hansei, Japanese for ‘reflection’, often referring to critical self-reflection. Only when we deeply reflect on our mistakes and opportunities can we attempt to move forward in our journey towards perfection.
Trait #2: Relentless Pursuit of Perfection
This trait is the very essence of Kaizen thinking. The absolute embracement of continuous improvement and utter rejection of the status quo. The Lean Leader believes that ‘good enough’ is never enough! Fitness expert Jack La Lane once said "The job is never done. So long as we live, we must work on ourselves". Burning inside the heart and soul of every Lean Leader lies a fundamental belief that everything can be made better and that we must constantly strive to achieve perfection, knowing full well that pure perfection can never actually be obtained. A key leadership behavior to enable this trait is Insatiable Curiosity. In order to improve one must be curious about possibilities and alternatives, as well as embrace the key concept of ‘Learning, not Knowing’. The Lean Leader constantly strives to improve themselves, and thus their organization, and never thinks they know everything.
Trait #3: Fanatical Customer Focus
In Lean, the Customer is at the beginning and end of everything. Without an intense focus on the customer and an understanding of what they value, a leader will not know where to focus their improvement efforts and may actually end up inadvertently carving out value from the organization (as Jeffrey Likert says, this is not lean, this is emaciated). Hyundai Motors Chairman Chung Mong-Koo had the Quality department report directly to him, likely the first major automaker to do so, and this move provided great returns in terms of reputation, revenue and market share. A key leadership behavior to support trait #3 is the ability to create a Problem Solving Culture – an environment where problems are readily surfaced (note the Toyota saying of "’No Problem’ is Problem!") and subsequently solved by the teams closest to where the work is being performed. Without a near-fanatical priority on customer value, the customer journey and a problem solving culture, it will be nearly impossible to meet or exceed the customer's expectations.
Trait #4: Champion of Simplicity
Leonardo Da Vinci once said "Simplicity is the Ultimate Sophistication". Most organizational processes and structures are much too complicated and the lure of efficiencies through complex IT systems sometimes makes matters worse. The Lean Leader needs to possess a daily mantra of Simplify and develop an eye for finding waste. ‘Learning to See’ (as LEI describes it) non-valuable activities is a skill that leaders can and must develop in order to cultivate a lean culture. An accompanying leadership behavior is Living Modestly. How can a leader be a Lean Leader if they personally engage in wasteful endeavors? Pope Francis has been an amazing role model to drive out waste and reduce excessive living habits from his organization. Joel Ewanick, a GM Marketing Chief, was once given a lavish $50,000 budget to furnish his personal office – instead he went to IKEA and paid only $2,000. This is leading by example, lean style.
Trait #5: Living the Gemba Style
Gemba is a Japanese word that means ‘workplace’, or in practical use ‘where value is created’. Leaders need to spend less time in the office or conference room and more time at the real touch points impacting the customer and the employees. Only then will they truly understand the real situation so that they can take effective actions to improve performance. The Lean Leader Manages by Gemba instead of Managing by Powerpoint by proactively scheduling ‘point of impact’ walks where they can actively engage with the people closest to the customer, instead of relying on 3rd party reports and only going to the workplace when there is a problem. When the boss only shows up during a crisis, how willing will the employees be to openly communicate the real situation? Lean Leaders provide continual coaching at the gemba versus giving orders from the office, fully exhibiting the critical behavior of Active Questioning & Listening to constantly develop and challenge the minds of their people.
Trait #6: Authentic, Upstanding & Respectful
Could Confucius have been Confucius without being authentic in his words, upstanding in his deeds and respectful to all those around him? These are the traits of any great leader, but they are particularly relevant to the Lean Leader. Since the main role of the Lean Leader is to be a coach and a people developer, they must inherently Lead By Example. Leading by example is not possible without being genuine and acting with high integrity.
The Toyota concept of Respect for People rings loudly for Trait #6, because it is only when employees and other stakeholders are respected can they be enabled to think, learn and improve. The President of a large US corporation announced a plan that would eliminate 45,000 jobs yet did not share in the struggles, even refusing to live in the headquarters city of Detroit and took a private jet every week from a faraway state. He was richly rewarded with annual payment of USD5.6 million. Confucius said ‘Above all Be Virtuous’ and ‘Rule Wisely and Fairly’ – that executive should have been ashamed at how he led.
These 6 Traits are by no means exhaustive, but I believe they do capture many of the behaviors that we have come to associate with Lean Leadership. They are generally distinct from the general leadership qualities and should thus be considered ‘additional’ traits above and beyond the foundational ones. It is important to cultivate these leadership expectations by institutionalizing them in the HR practices for leader development. But most importantly, leaders must build a lean culture by themselves adhering to the principles of lean leadership on a daily basis, thus generating the repeatable behaviors in the organization that will result in a high level of performance. As John Shook says, ‘Act your way to the thinking you want’ --- Lean Leadership is the Act.
I have shared with you some of my perspectives on Lean Leadership - as always, your inputs are very valuable and highly appreciated.
John S. Hamalian
1 The Lean Six Sigma LinkedIn group