Leading with Lean

Steve Jobs once said:

“Be a Yardstick of Quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected”

Therefore a Quality Mind-set will only pervade the organisation when the Leadership actively models the behaviour. Only by living the approach to Quality that they desire can Leaders truly drive the change to a Culture of Quality.

Introduction – Why lead with Lean?

According to Gallup’s Global Employee Engagement Survey1 only 13% of employees worldwide are engaged at work. Even more concerning is the revelation that 24% are “actively disengaged”, meaning that they are unhappy and unproductive at work and liable to spread negativity amongst their colleagues. Furthermore, according to a report by the Harvard Business Review Analytics Services2, based upon responses from largely Senior Executives, 71% of respondents rank employee engagement as very important to achieving overall organisational success.

This gulf between the state of employee engagement, which is without exception across both industries and cultures, and the recognition by Senior Leadership of its necessity to drive performance, should be a major concern for any Organisation’s Leadership and its resolution the most significant executive priority.

The core proposition of this article is that an Organisation’s Leadership are the main difference between engaged and disengaged people and between a Culture of high or mediocre Performance and that Lean Leadership is the most effective methodology to achieve high levels of employee engagement, a high performance organisation and ultimately a Quality Mind-set.

To attain the state of Lean Leadership, four complementary Leadership styles must be practiced and within the article these are described, with the intent that they will result in an Organisation focussed on People and engage them in their work:

  1. Leadership Activism
  2. Visible Leadership
  3. Mosquito Leadership
  4. Coaching Leadership

These Leadership Styles, when lived authentically, will gift the Leader with the ability to connect with their team members and transform the behaviours, mind-set and culture of their organisation.

This is not to say that these styles can be forced or easily mastered. It will take a real commitment from each Leader to adopt Lean Leadership and the styles required to make it successful but, even in the early days of their adoption, an immediate difference will be seen, provided that the Leader is willing to move into a state of conscious incompetence (admitting what they don’t yet know) and having the humility to make mistakes and learn.

The long-term return will be significant for both the individual and the organisation and, in the author’s organisation, Royal Philips, several years of Lean Transformation have demonstrated significant improvements in the Leadership and business performance for those areas of the business that have truly grasped the opportunity.

1. Leadership Activism

Question: In a bacon and egg breakfast, what’s the difference between the Chicken and the Pig?

Answer: The Chicken is involved, but the Pig is committed!

Whilst this metaphor only stretches so far, what it represents is that we need Leaders for whom making the change to a culture where excellence is expected is a true commitment, whereby they not only “talk the talk” but they also “walk the walk”.

The Leader cannot only be an advocate for the change that they want but must be an activist: Being the change that they desire. This is not nuance or semantics but is a tangible difference in the way that the Leader will operate and role model the new Philosophy: Lean Thinking.

The Lean Leader is a coach amongst their colleagues, continuously encouraging and teaching them how to become activists, which will require humility and a willingness to make mistakes and show ‘conscious incompetence’ in front of their teams. However, once the initial fear is overcome, what they will observe is an increased respect and appreciation from their teams as they see them being the change that they want, role modelling and experimenting with the new ways of working.

Three Leaders who have sincerely demonstrated “Leading with Lean” are Art Byrne3, who amongst other things transformed Wiremold, Professor John J Oliver OBE, the former CEO of Leyland Trucks, who turned around the business with what he termed “Radical Employee Engagement” and Dr. Gary Kaplin, MD, who as CEO of Virginia Mason, a Healthcare Provider in Washington State, USA, has led them to become one of the most successful Lean Transformations in the Healthcare Industry and to a leading position in North American Healthcare Provision.

Dr. Kaplin is an inspiring Lean Leader, who, along with the Virginia Mason Board, took a transparent and humble approach to addressing their case for change at the beginning of the 21st Century:

  • Survival (Losing money for the first time in their History)
  • Poor retention of the best People
  • Loss of Organisational Vision
  • Leadership Change
  • A Defective Product

The element of “Defective Product” is an interesting approach to viewing Healthcare and is an eye opener in terms of what it means for patients, as it refers to a historical 34% Defect rate. This means that for every 100 patient encounters there were 34 defects, which could be anything from no record of an appointment all the way through to an avoidable death.

As Dr. Kaplin stated in his address of the St. Luke’s Health System Summit in 2013:

“…if the aviation industry had this sort of defect rate, ‘planes would fall out of the sky every day; if Flat Screen TVs had these kinds of defect rates we wouldn’t buy them…”

The Story started in the year 2000 when the Virginia Mason Board of Management asked Dr. Kaplin and his Leadership Team:

“Who is your Customer?”

Their response was predictable:

“The Patient”

However, the Board retorted that if that was the case, things wouldn’t be the way that they were:

  • Processes were designed around the Medical Professionals and Staff, not the Patients
  • $100s of Millions of Dollars spent in the Healthcare industry for waiting rooms: “Places for Patients to hurry up, be on time and wait for us”; Kaplin
  • If everything is alright with their test results, Patients are sent home by Friday afternoon. If not, they wait through the Weekend until Monday

By facing the reality of the situation they tackled some of the paradigms prevalent in the Healthcare industry and one of the most courageous things done by Dr. Kaplin and the board was to go public about a preventable death that had a major impact on their Lean Transformation.

Despite being already 3 years into the deployment of Lean, as a result of this loss of life and major Quality of Service failing, they refocused to a single organisational goal for the years 2004 through to 2006 of protecting patients from avoidable harm.

A reassuring element of the approach that the team at Virginia Mason have taken is that they have not tried to ‘reinvent’ Lean for their industry, accepting that they do ‘make’ things and even calling their Lean System the Virginia Mason Production System (VMPS). This is a mature approach and would appear to be a critical factor of the mind-set required to be successful in a Lean Transformation and one that was driven by their activist Leader.

An example of a CommCell in a Healthcare environment
An example of a CommCell in a Healthcare environment

Another element of activist Leadership is the way that Dr. Kaplin has driven Virginia Mason to undertake detailed Value Stream Mapping of their Current States (finding typically 90%+ of the time being non-Value Added) to enable the significant improvements that they’ve made in their performance and they have taken a granular approach.

However, Dr. Kaplin is clear about the role of the Lean Leader:

“As Leaders there are technical changes, Lean, there’s the Toolbox, it’s the improvement method … but you need a critical mass to feel urgency, you need to have visible and committed Leadership; not advocacy leadership; I was a great advocate Leader … my job was to get all the resources from our department and keep administration off of our backs … but that’s not what we need now…”

As a result of the 15+ years of Lean Transformation, they have made a fantastic leap forward in their performance and care for their Patients and in 2010 were awarded the recognition of ‘Top Hospital of the Decade’ by the Leapfrog Group and have since featured regularly in the ‘Top 100 Hospitals in America’ list4. The Cultural change in their organisation is tangible and is led from the top.

Leading with Lean requires our Leaders to be activists like Dr. Kaplin but it doesn’t mean that we only need the CEO, the C-Suite and the Senior Leadership. Rather, we need all Leaders, whether they are the CEO, the Quality Manager or a Team Leader on the shop-floor to be an Activist Leader.

2. Visible Leadership

Genchi Genbutsu is the Japanese Term for ‘Go See’ and is critical for the Lean Leader’s success. By going to see, visible leadership can be enacted and this goes hand-in-hand with Leadership Activism, going to the Gemba, the place where the work is done, and helping to solve problems. However, the Gemba shouldn’t be confused with only a Manufacturing shop-floor but can be a workstation in a design office, a call centre, or an operating theatre. It is anywhere where the value (and also the waste) is created for the Customer. Taiichi Ohno5, considered the Father of TPS (the Toyota Production System), said it best:

“Toyota Managers must be sufficiently engaged on the factory floor that they have to wash their hands at least three times a day”

Taiichi Ohno quote; from Mark Graban's slideshare
Taiichi Ohno quote; from Mark Graban’s slideshare

By going to the Gemba and helping to solve the problem where it is happening; Leading Kaizen Events, undertaking Kamishibai6 and being seen as a Visible Leader; the Lean Leader will begin to live the Lean Principles of:

  • Principle 5: Build a Culture of ‘Stop and Fix’ problems to get Quality right the first time
  • Principle 7: Use visual controls so that no problems are hidden
  • Principle 9: Grow leaders who thoroughly understand the work, live the Philosophy and teach it to others
  • Principle 10: Develop exceptional people and teams who follow your Company’s philosophy
  • Principle 12: Go and see for yourself to thoroughly understand the situation (Genchi Genbutsu)

Being a Visible Leader is not just about being seen but about being seen to support Team Members in adding value for the Customer. By asking the right questions, helping them to solve problems and removing barriers, the Lean Leader will help them to help their Customers and will graduate as a ‘Leader as a Teacher’. To do this they must help them to make their workplace, and the processes and value streams within it, visual.

In virtual environments, such as most creative and transactional environments are, this is even more important and the utilisation of tools such as a CommCell (Communication Cell), Visual Planning Boards and Kanban Development Boards7 can be a great way of achieving this visualisation.

An example of a Kanban Development Board
An example of a Kanban Development Board

Leading with Lean requires that the workplace becomes a showcase of excellence, whereby the status can be understood by everyone at any time and in an interval that is meaningful. This means that the status, say 4 weeks ago, is not acceptable; it is the status now or, dependent upon the area of the organisation, within a reasonable time interval that matters. This means that on a factory floor the status within the last few seconds or minutes will be visible and in a development environment, within the last few hours or day.

The Lean Leader will encounter some initial scepticism and resistance as they begin their visits to the Gemba, as the employees will expect that it is the typical visit for show, without real meaning, and will result in potential criticism and additional workload through actions or even a change in priorities and direction. However, the Lean Leader will have the patience to demonstrate, with their activism, that the visits will be often and that they will be meaningful and build the trust with their team members, resulting in improved engagement and an increased focus on excellence and quality in everything that they do.

3. Mosquito Leadership

The third form of Leadership in the repertoire of the Lean Leader is termed ‘Mosquito Leadership’. There is a certain familiarity with the concept of spreading ideas, news or opinions ‘virally’ and despite the fact that very few, if any, of us would like to catch a real virus, we are happy to catch many of the viral trends that are out there.

Being the virus
Being the virus

Extending the analogy, the Mosquito Leadership style is one where the Lean Leader spreads, virally, the change in mind-set by ‘infecting’ the organisation with their ideas and beliefs. Again, this is complementary to the other Leadership styles and so the Leadership Activism and Visibility play a significant part in this.

The philosophy behind this form of Leadership is that a Leader is not limited in influence and impact by job title, role description or hierarchal position. Instead, they identify the long-term impact that they wish to have on their organisation and develop a strategy to make it happen and the name given to this form of leadership was inspired by a traditional African proverb:

“If you think that you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a closed room with a Mosquito”

This is precisely why this form of Leadership is so important to being an effective Lean Leader, as without the willingness to go out and infect colleagues, the critical mass of change required for a Quality Mind-set and the pursuit of excellence will not be achieved.

To adopt the Mosquito Leadership style, certain beliefs must be held by the Lean Leader, which must be similar to the following:

  • If I truly believe in the Vision, Mission and Values of the Organisation in which I operate, I must be a leader in the change required to realise our Goals
  • However, I am not a lone soldier or a Maverick; I am an Agent for Change
  • I know that ‘I’ deliver more when I focus on ‘We’
  • I realise that I don’t have all the answers, in fact I have only a few, but I’ll find the people who collectively do have them
  • Whilst my Legacy may be small in terms of Human History, it will be significant in the area for which I’m focussed
  • It is only my Discipline and Focus that will be an equal to my Stamina
  • I will only regret the mistakes that I made by not doing what I believed was right; all other mistakes I will simply learn and improve from
  • I am the Culture of my Organisation, not the victim of it, and I will never blame it for my failure to deliver or let it prevent me from doing what must be done
  • I do this because it is the right thing to do for the Organisation, not for Career advancement

The Lean Leader understands that their Sphere of Control is relatively small, even when they have risen to a quite senior level in their Organisation. However, they know that their success depends upon increasing their Sphere of Influence far beyond that which they would normally derive from the position that they hold and they strive energetically to increase its diameter every day.

There are multiple ways in which they can do this but, at the core, is a belief in what they want to achieve and a willingness to create the networks required to achieve it. In the Digital era in which we now live, this is much easier in terms of the media that can be used for this, although this has not diminished the personal courage required. Social media in particular have enabled the way by which the Lean Leader may increase their Sphere of Influence beyond those people that they meet in person and instead reach a global audience and, whilst external sites like LinkedIn are great tools for this, internal social media sites, such as those provided by Socialcast8, and the use of Webinars and Webcasts, are excellent ways to engage with the Organisation directly and to ensure that their voice is heard.

Sphere of Control, Influence and Everything else
Sphere of Control, Influence and Everything else

In case the metaphor of the Mosquito has engendered the idea that Mosquito Leadership creates a nuisance within the Organisation and someone to be eradicated, the Lean Leader is not someone who is fighting with the Organisation but, instead, someone who believes passionately in the Goals of the Business and is highly engaged in challenging the business to meet those Goals in a better way; more effectively and with greater success than they otherwise would.

They are certainly a disruptive influence, but in a very positive sense, as they consistently ask the difficult questions of the organisation and expect that the Status Quo be seen as something that will soon enter into history and, whilst the Mosquito often carries the Malaria virus, which Humans try to avoid, the organisation will gain greatly from the Virus that the Mosquito Leader will infect it with; one of Transformation.

The Mosquito Leadership style is not easy, as it requires that the person is prepared to step out of their ‘comfort zone’ and expand upon their ‘normal’ duties. They may find, in fact will often find, resistance from across the Organisation and will not ingratiate themselves with those who fear the change that they are advocating and are activist in bringing about.

The true Lean Leader, through the Mosquito Leadership style, will grow in their role as a thought leader and role model for change, delivering a Persistent Legacy, significant in their Organisation, which they, and everyone involved, can be extremely proud of.

4. Coaching Leadership

Getting in the way of the ‘players’
Getting in the way of the ‘players’

The final Leadership style required to ‘Lead with Lean’ is coaching leadership and is integral to the Lean Leadership approach.

To illustrate this, imagine how frustrating it must be as the Coach of a Football (Soccer) Team during the game; at worst they see their hard-worked game plan evaporate in front of their very eyes and, at best, they may win but have to watch as not everything goes to plan and they rely on their Players to make changes to the play as they respond to the actions of the opposition.

They can, of course, try to speak to their players whilst they are playing and it’s not unusual to observe coaches who arrive at the game cool and collected screaming incessantly at their players during the game. However, what is crucial is, that no matter how much they may try to influence their players with their cries from the sideline, they are not on the field of play and the game is played by the players themselves.

Whilst the Coach may have an overwhelming urge to enter the field of play, they have the advantage of being prohibited by the laws of the game and therefore have no choice but to coach from the sidelines. It is an advantage because, if they were allowed to enter the field of play, they may try to do the work for the players but would, inevitably, only make things worse and demotivate the team.

Relating this back to Business, far too often Leaders micro-manage their team members, entering the ‘field of play’ and trying to play the game for them. However, ironically, the problem solving is usually not done at the Gemba but in a Meeting room or remote office, using online dashboards, discussing perceptions of problems and opinions on solutions, which far too often do not include the insight or expertise of the people who actually do the work. Instead, a new mandate, set of Golden Rules or Procedure are sent to those who do the work, providing them with the ‘answer’ to a problem they didn’t know existed and which doesn’t address the root cause(s) of the issues that they face every day.

The result is the dichotomy of a system that has both over-intimate management, fire-fighting on a daily basis, combined with remote ‘problem solving’, which leads to demotivated and frustrated team members and, at best, average Operational Performance.

As Steve Jobs once said:

“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so that they can tell us what to do”

Learning from the laws of the game of Football (and most Sports), there is the need to build a system where the Leaders of the organisation can work to set its vision, mission, values and its strategic objectives. Then, by working with their teams, they deploy the objectives into goals with clear deliverables that are cascaded throughout the organisation and, through the training and development of their staff, build the overall organisational capability that will support the creation of a high performance culture.

Crucially, they must allow their People to do the work and problem solve, without ‘telling’ them what to do. This is not to say that Leaders should be banned from going to the Gemba, quite the contrary, we want them there more than they are on average, as highlighted by both the visible and activist leadership styles, but what we need is for them to coach, not try to play the game for their Team.

This requires a different skill-set and mind-set than most leaders have developed throughout their careers, changing their role from being the most experienced and expert of the team (or at least thinking that), able to tell everyone how to fix the problems, to a coaching role, asking the right questions to enable the team to solve their problems in a structural way. Most importantly, they need to allow their people to make mistakes and learn from them, doing things differently than they would personally prefer.

Most importantly, they need to allow their people to make mistakes and learn from them, doing things differently than they would personally prefer.

This is a key component of Lean Leadership, as it is the only way that an individual can have the scale of impact that is necessary to drive high business performance; getting results through the enablement of others’ skills and their engagement in the work, as opposed to by telling them what to do.

This takes a leap of faith for the individual Leader, facing a perceived loss of control and a fear that performance will spiral out of control without their explicit intervention and direction. It is true that, if control has been the norm in the organisation or group then a complete change overnight is not advisable, as the team will not have the requisite organisational capability. Nevertheless, the change in behaviour and ways-of-working has to begin and make significant progress whilst we build the capability and trust of the team.

Moving to a Coaching Leadership style will not be easy. However, it is essential to achieve long-term sustainable success for the organisation.


The Lean Leadership Venn Diagram
The Lean Leadership Venn Diagram

If we are to deliver a truly excellent organisation, with a Quality Mind-set, we need to lead in a way that enables it. The proposition of this article was that Lean Leadership is the best way to achieve this, provided that it is practice authentically, consistently and in the long-term, regardless of business pressures.

The 4 Leadership styles required to achieve Lean Leadership are complementary and, whilst each on their own are already positive, their cumulative impact is much larger than the sum of the individual parts.

In fact, if one or more of them is overlooked or omitted, there will be a deleterious effect on the overall efficacy of the Leadership and so the Leader must ensure that they focus effectively on building their competence in all 4 styles. In fact, the most positive approach is where Leadership teams are able to agree that they will all live and breathe Lean Leadership and are able to support and challenge each other along their journey and this is the approach taken in Royal Philips, where the Lean Excellence Model9 ensures a unified and collective method for the deployment of Lean Thinking.

Bringing together the Leadership Styles required to achieve Lean Leadership in a Venn Diagram, it is clear that it can only be achieved when all 4 styles are running in harmony.

If one, or more, is missing, there will be consequences for the impact of the Leadership Style within the organisation:

  • Without Leadership Activism the essential element of Role Modelling and leading by example will be missed
  • Without Visible Leadership the employees will not see what the Leader is doing and they will become detached from the teams
  • Without Mosquito Leadership the Leader’s impact on the organisation will be limited to their span of control, which will usually, even in the case of Senior Leaders, be quite small
  • Without Coaching Leadership, the Leadership will appear directive and the results will be unsustainable

Where Lean Leadership is practiced, learnt and applied, employee engagement will bloom and the organisation’s performance thrive, bringing benefits for everyone; Customer, Employee, Leader and Shareholder.


Philip Holt

Philip Holt

An experienced Change Leader with a track record of delivering Operational Excellence within Market Leading Businesses. With a people focused drive for results, develops strong teams to ensure that the Business Strategy is successfully delivered. Highly experienced working globally, combining adaptation to cultural differences with a maintenance of fidelity to the blueprint.

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