Sorry No Buzzword

In this month’s question Jan van Ginkel, Director Value Stream Management & Supply Chain Development at Sara Lee CoffeeTea asks what distinguishes a good lean leader from a traditional one in terms of behavior and results in short sentence.

Here is my response posted over at the Lean Edge:

Sorry but in all honesty I am not a fan of providing “sound bite” sized answers to complex questions. I fear these short so-called answers or buzz words often do far more harm than good and don’t advance the state of lean thinking very much. I believe that hard questions deserve some hard thinking and reflection. If Lean Leadership could be reduced to a catchy phrase or a basic formula (e=mc²) it would have been done long ago…In order to play along with the game however I will draft an attempt at a shorter response and then a longer one that I think reflects current reality.

In short good Lean leaders focus on customer satisfaction, producing stellar results, achieving improvement systems, and developing people in the process. Problems and processes are looked at as opportunities for improvement. Themes employed in the problem solving encompass but are not limited to concepts such as building in quality, producing Just-in-Time, standardizing work to the pace of customer demand, etc., etc. Successful Lean leaders drive their companies to dig deeper and go farther than the competition. I have commented on some of this before in a question pertaining to Respect for People. When a successful Lean leader steps aside ideally the system continues and development continues. If results are not achieved or the system falters then something was missing. As an example after Taiichi Ohno and Eiji Toyoda stepped aside inside of Toyota the company continued to improve.

The longer answer is more complex and why I am not a fan of the “buzz word” answer to complex questions. Leadership is often situational in nature and hence does not conform well to stereotypes. Successful leaders do different things at different points in time. In other words copying someone else is not always a recipe for success…your company situation may not be what Toyota for example faces today or in the 1950’s. Steve Jobs found tremendous success doing things his own way and people need to remember this point as well.

If you look at corporate leaders (or at least Presidents) inside of Toyota over the past sixty years you wind up with the following list of names:

1) 1937-1941 Risburo Toyoda

2) 1941-1950 Kiichiro Toyoda

3) 1950-1961 Taizo Ishida

4) 1961-1967 Fukio Nakagawa

5) 1967-1982 Eiji Toyoda

6) 1982-1992 Shoichiro Toyoda

7) 1992-1995 Tatsuro Toyoda

8) 1995-1999 Hiroshi Okuda

9) 1999-2005 Fujio Cho

10) 2005-2009 Katsuaki Watanabe

11) 2009-Current Akio Toyoda

I’d wager that most of the names on the list the average person has not heard of before. Some were more successful than others and a couple struggled in hindsight. However even on the successful ones I doubt that if studied in detail we’d arrive at a single insight or phrase that describes their actions in leading Toyota to success over the past six decades. Each one faced different challenges at different points in time as the company evolved. If you reduce leadership complexity to generalities you wind up with generic summary responses like “Continuous Improvement and Respect for People” etc.

Good leaders should not worry too much about if their behavior aligns with someone else’s template for success. Steve Jobs broke the mold at Apple and enjoyed a long run of success.  We’ll see if it sustains or not in the long run now that he has passed on. Eiji Toyota and Taiichi Ohno did things that not everyone agreed with in the beginning on their improvement journey.  Other leaders have often been unconventional as well.

My advice to executives perusing lean type of improvement often starts with the following lines of questions and it is highly subjective. I also doubt it is original in the least.

1)     What are you trying to accomplish?

2)     Why are you trying to accomplish this set of goals?

3)     When does your organization need to do this by?

4)     How will the organization accomplish the objective?

5)     Is there a certain “way” or style of action you are trying to create?

6)     How are you personally going to display leadership on this action?

7)     What are the main problems you want to focus upon initially and why?

8)     How will you review progress?

9)     How will you develop people?

10)  How will you measure, reward, and recognize success?

11)  How will you make this a systematic way of doing things?

12)  How will you promote improvement in the long run and not rigid dogmatic adherence to current concepts?

I don’t expect the answers to be the same from case to case. In fact they should be different depending upon the circumstances and environment the leader is facing. I also realize that this is not the short concise answer that people are looking for. However in the end I think this style of thinking and the answers are more important than conforming to other individuals conception of correct “behavior”