Fast or Slow: It’s Your Choice

Some Lean transformations proceed quickly while most others proceed slowly. How does that happen? What drives those outcomes? It hinges in large part on whether or not leaders allow employees to think, ask Why?,” and use their imagination and creativity to correct abnormalities.

In Better Thinking, Better Results, I characterized the enormous progress made by The Wiremold Company in just 10 years as “widespread fast,” kaizen-driven transformation compared to the “local incremental” transformation favored by most CEOs. Art Byrne’s leadership explains the difference. He was personally engaged in the Lean transformation, eagerly learning and improving his understanding of Lean principles and practices in tandem with everyone else. His behaviors were respectful of people and he was patient as associates learned new ways of thinking and doing things. He inspired people, both teams and one-by-one, to understand and practice Lean every day. Employees loved Art and gladly follow his lead. As a result, forward progress exceeded backslide by a wide margin.

lean_matrixIn contrast, there is ABCorp. The CEO is disengaged, arrogant, and confident he has nothing new to learn. The CEO mandates Lean, thinking it is nothing more than the addition of some tools to conventional management practice. His behaviors are consistently disrespectful of people and he is impatient as others try to learn new ways of thinking and doing things. Employees dislike their leader and ignore him whenever possible. Despite all the value stream maps, A3 reports, colorful metrics charts, and precious metal levels of certification, forward progress is continuously undone by persistent backslide. Several years into their Lean transformation, the CEO complains that the results have been a disappointment. That is the standard regret nearly every CEO has: We should have gone faster. That’s true, but what you should have done was understood and practiced kaizen continuously.

To a great extent, “widespread fast” or “slow incremental” is a choice that CEOs make. They either choose to participate or not, and whether kaizen is the method used for rapid change. They choose to behave in ways that create value or which create waste, unevenness, and unreasonableness. They choose to lead change for the better or lead change that only nibbles at the status quo.

After decades of experience and observation, we have learned something very clearly: There is a cost and consequence to the bad (zero-sum) behaviors of ABCorp-type leaders. Namely, the “local incremental” Lean transformation that is as dissatisfying for the CEO as it is for employees. We have also learned that Lean leadership is totally different than leadership for conventional management. We know what works and what does not. 

There is a long story for understanding the difference, which richly explains the many nuances and details of Lean leadership and Lean management. But, there is also a short story for understanding the difference in the form of my online courses and my workbook Practical Lean Leadership. This is a great place to start for time-pressed executives who want to make a difference.

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