Here are some questions that I am often asked and my answers. They will help you better understand who I am and what I do.
Are you a consultant?
No. I am a teacher, not a consultant. What’s the difference? A teacher educates students, while a consultant provides advice to professionals in a particular subject matter. Teachers in higher education do research that is formally vetted by other academics (and often practitioners as well), while most consultants do not do research. If they do, it normally is not vetted through the peer-review process. I am happy to teach students of Lean management outside of the higher education environment in ways that work best for you: in-person, video conference, phone, or books.
Who trained you in Lean management?
Consultants from Shingijutsu Co., Ltd, between 1994 and 1997, and periodically thereafter. I also worked for a very capable Lean leader named Lloyd Tirey, whom I modeled myself after from both a Lean technical knowledge and behavioral perspective. But you should know that I have never been a “Lean tools” or a “manufacturing guy.” I am not an “operations guy” either. From the beginning, my interest has always been the human side of Lean management, and leadership makes all the difference. Anyone can learn Lean tools, but for too long Lean leadership was seen as a mysterious art that few could master. I wanted to change that, given the wide-ranging benefits of Lean management to all stakeholders.
How long have you been studying Lean?
My first exposure to progressive Lean management was in 1992 or 1993, when I read Masaaki Imai’s book Kaizen. I gained hands-on experience with Lean starting in the summer of 1994 and in the years thereafter. I continue to be a Lean practitioner today, which helps inform my research and university teaching work.
Why did you decide to focus your research on Lean leadership?
Primarily because there were so many unanswered questions. For example: How do you lead a Lean transformation? Why are some companies successful while most others are not? What is it about the leaders who experience success with Lean? What do they understand about Lean that others do not? What do Lean leaders practice? How do they think? What do they do differently? I was the first researcher to focus exclusively on Lean leadership. It was a tough, challenging problem to study. Based on my own experience, I knew that my research findings could have an great impact on people.
Is your research practical or theoretical?
My research is practical. I am not a career academic; I come from a hands-on practitioner background. As a result, I always make sure that my research is useful to practitioners. Books, and especially academic papers, are often perceived as theoretical because they have a formal look. But don’t let looks fool you. Academic papers have to conform to journal editorial requirements, which give them a formal look and makes them difficult to read, yet their content is often practical immediately applicable. That is the case for my academic papers (and books).
What is the relevance of your research on Lean leadership?
My research is relevant to the real world challenge of how to effectively lead people in organizations. When I began in the mid-1990s, little was understood about Lean leadership, how Lean leaders think, what they know, what they do, and so on. As a result of my research, most of these questions have been answered – both at the macro- and micro-levels. Now, we clearly know what works and what does not work with respect to Lean leadership and how to lead a Lean transformation. My research has turned Lean leadership into much more of a science and less of art. This makes Lean leadership accessible to many more people.
Why don’t more leaders practice Lean management?
Because it is hard for them to do. Moving from batch-and-queue material and information processing to flow changes everything – and I mean everything. It changes ways of thinking and doing things, policies, metrics, practices, processes, behaviors, etc. That is simply too big a challenge for most successful leaders to want to take on. Fortunately, a younger generation of managers is growing up on Lean, and they will be more successful.
What are the biggest misunderstandings that people have about Lean leadership?
Three things: 1) Leaders must be personally engaged in learning Lean principles and practices. You can’t lead a Lean transformation if you do not understand Lean management. Lean requires daily practice. 2) In order for Lean management to function correctly, it must be practiced it in a non-zero-sum (win-win) way. This contrasts with conventional management, which is zero-sum (win-lose) in its basic orientation. Lean must do no harm. 3) The “Respect for People” principle is not optional. Most senior managers don’t get that and end up practicing Fake Lean.
You have written a lot on Lean leadership. Why so much?
Because there is a lot to write about. As Lean people often say, “The more you know, the more you realize how much you don’t know.” Lean is a wonderful system of management for any organization, but has had both limited reach and limited success because there have been so many unanswered questions, especially pertaining to leadership. I have spent the last 20 years working to correct that. I write simply to share what I have learned with others, and to help people who want to learn and improve. That’s what a teacher does. Books are a practical, low-cost, and effective way to teach others.
Who pays for your research?
My work is self-funded through book sales and related services, but in some cases the university provides small and limited forms of support for scholarly work. All research is conducted as free and independent works. I accept unrestricted grants and external funding for research projects if independence can be maintained, as is customary when doing scholarly work.