Great Lean Leaders

Being a great Lean leader means to have an awareness of one’s biases. Normally, leaders possess many unconscious social biases, as described in the article “Bringing Hidden Biases Into the Light” (WSJ, 9 January 2014). The most prominent ones include age, race, gender, weight, sexuality, and disability to name a few. These inhibit an organization’s ability to develop a diverse workforce at all levels and make good management decisions.

A test to identify unconscious biases, the Implicit Association Test (IAT), was developed in the mid-1990s by Professor Anthony Greenwald and his then-graduate student Mahzarin Banaji. Upon completing her Ph.D., Prof. Banaji joined the faculty of Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut. I learned about the IAT in early 1999 and was very interested in its potential to help corporations improve diversity and overall management practice.

In the summer of 1999, I invited Dr. Banaji to United Technologies corporate headquarters in Hartford, Conn., to explain the IAT and how it might be beneficial for people in UTCs supply management organization to understand their unconscious biases. The meeting itself went well, but there was no interest in the IAT as a method for training and developing current and future leaders in both unconscious biases and decision-making. Fifteen years later, the IAT is the biggest growing product in corporate training. The tech industry is using the IAT to help correct systemic imbalances in diversity.

After leaving UTC in 1999 and joining academia, I featured the IAT in the courses that I taught, and continue to do so today, because unconscious biases are a form of behavioral waste that blocks information flow and slows down improvement. While social biases are important, my interest has long been the unconscious biases of executives in relation to these key stakeholders.

  • Workers – The people who create value for customers, yet the executive attitude towards people’s wages/salaries and benefits is to cut, cut, cut (i.e. stagnant incomes).
  • Labor unions – The providers of skilled labor, yet leaders threaten to move the work if unions do not capitulate to their unreasonable demands (e.g. Boeing, Caterpillar).
  • Suppliers – Companies that provide 25 to 90 percent of the value of the costs of goods (or services) sold, yet are perpetually bargained with to obtain lower prices  (i.e. price beating).
  • Change agents – The people who lead efforts to improve, yet are often seen as having little long-term value to an organization or leadership potential (i.e. lay off CI people rather than promote them).

These groups normally face zero-sum (win-lose) outcomes. Why?

For years I have wondered what the results would be for an IAT taken by managers and executives in relation to these groups. I believe that it could show the highest levels of social bias ever recorded. If organizations must continuously improve, as their leaders say they must, then executives must understand their own biases and learn to manage them so that better decisions are made – for both the business and its stakeholders.

Tellingly, the organizations that have the most trouble with Lean are those who leaders perpetually view key stakeholders negatively, as necessary evils, and as nothing more than instruments to bargain with.  Think also about the biases that leaders have against certain departments, such as HR, purchasing, or operations. How good can management’s decisions be when they favor one function, such as finance or legal, over another, such as sales or engineering.

Great Lean leaders are far less biased against workers, labor unions, suppliers, and change agents. In addition, they are less biased against internal departments, which results in much better teamwork at both the executive and working levels. An organization will never succeed in its Lean transformation of the leaders cannot understand their unconscious biases toward key groups and reduce or eliminate zero-sum outcomes.

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