Posted by: productivityinc | July 28, 2010

Leadership – the Hidden Opportunity

You may have a leadership issue if…

Often we are asked by clients to help them with the implementation of a lean technique; one they feel will solve their “biggest problem”.  For example, some clients have asked us to assist them with the implementation of TPM believing their biggest problem was poor equipment reliability, others have asked for assistance implementing SMED believing their biggest problem was long changeovers, and still others want 5s/Visuals believing their biggest problem to be a disorganized work environment.

What we have found in many cases, however, is that while successful implementation of these lean techniques may offer the best opportunity for them to improve their production environment and meet production goals, their “biggest problem” is actually with the leadership of their improvement effort.

If you are struggling to meet your improvement objectives, chances are the problem may not be with your implementation of a specific Lean technique, but with the leadership of the overall effort.

You may have a leadership issue if…
You have placed visual boards at each cell but the boards contain outdated or no data
You have improvement tags hanging on equipment that are more than a few days old
Your managers blame employees for not following through on improvement initiatives
Your employees blame your managers for everything that is wrong
Your managers spend only a small amount of their time on the shop floor
Your employees can’t articulate their “role” in the improvement effort or the expectations the organization has for them

If any of this sounds familiar, here are some things to consider.

Communication is Key!
Take time to tell them why…
To be successful, employees need to be clear on what their work is all about – what the organization’s mission is, and how their work fits into the strategy. Most leaders of top-performing companies spend a significant amount of time communicating… and telling stories.   You must facilitate employees’ ownership in the process so they can understand how improvement, as part of their daily work, ties to the organization’s overall goals and this ultimately benefits them.  Explain that they are not just cleaning that machine to make it clean, but they are cleaning it to inspect it in order to find defects before they become major problems that will cost the company money and detract from overall objectives. When employees understand their role in the improvements, there can be a significant, positive, impact on your financials.

Clearly communicate…
Clarity in communication can sometimes be an issue.   If I’m working for you, you need to be clear what you expect from me.   Take the time needed to be certain everyone understands as words can have a variety of meanings.  For example, if you asked someone to purchase you a “light blue suit” what would you get — a vintage 1970’s powder blue leisure suit, or a navy suit in a light (weight) summer fabric? Both technically are “light blue suits”. Often, clarity is missing in communications leading to misunderstandings, errors, and ultimately to strained relationships between groups that need to work as a team to ensure success.  Communicate clearly and then follow up making sure your team is executing as you expect.

Be present in the workplace…
To communicate, you have to be there; and communication implies bidirectional exchange, as well as an on-going exchange. I’ve been to organizations where supervisors told me they only spend 20 percent of their time on the floor. Who’s leading? Who’s coaching people? That tells me there is a weakness there.”

Show the value…
In your interaction with employees, be sure to show them that you and the organization value them and their input/ideas, because… it IS valuable.  Leaders need to place value on employee thinking and encourage the idea that improvement should be a priority at all times, not just during formal improvement exercises, such as kaizen events.  Let employees know that the new expectation is, ‘we don’t want you to check your brain from an improvement perspective when you’re not in a kaizen event.’

Be consistent…
One of the biggest mistakes a leader can make is not being consistent. When things are going good, people act and think and behave in a particular way. But as soon as there is some anomaly, they default back to something that is not consistent with the approach they’re trying to take.”

Don’t be afraid of conflict…
Good leaders aren’t afraid of conflict.  If someone works for you and isn’t delivering to expectations, talk to the worker directly.  The only way to fix things is to address it with the source and then move forward.  Too many leaders absolutely fear conflict. If you fear conflict, you’re not cut out to be a leader.”

Display a rollup your sleeves attitude…
Another key point is to avoid playing the blame game. Rather than blaming top management, another shift, or specific employees for problems, a good leader will say ‘let’s fix the problem’. Then work to find out what can be done to prevent it from happening again.

Continuous improvement is the outcome of building dynamic capabilities. Implementation of the lean techniques absent the leadership to drive the effort will only temporarily or marginally improve your environment.   If your improvement initiatives are falling short of your goals, look first to your leadership and ask, are they creating an environment in which employees are engaged, free to experiment and where improvement and problem solving are part of daily work?   The biggest reason implementations fall short lies not in the implementation of a Lean technique, but with the soft skills necessary to drive the effort.   Leadership – it could be your biggest problem…and therefore your biggest opportunity!


  1. I would say that–in my experience–leadership is a great opportunity for most organizations.
    On a specific note, your point on clarity of communications is well-taken. Walter Shewhart codified this point in a 1934 paper that outlined the necessity for operational definitions, a theme picked up by (and popularized by) W. Edwards Deming. We hear resistance to this idea in phrases such as “oh…it’s just semantics.” When we’re trying to communicate with each other, however, semantics is important.

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