The Role of Leadership in Continuous-Improvement and Lean Journeys -- What's Missing?

“What is missing from leadership in most continuous-improvement and Lean journeys?” That's the question I posed this past week to Brent Timmerman, who recently published a book entitled Starting Lean from Scratch: A Senior Leader’s Guide to Beginning and Steering an Organizational Culture Change for Continuous Improvement that addresses this topic head on. Here is Brent's complete response:

When an organization is beginning a continuous improvement and Lean journey, the leaders must be prepared to change their behaviors. It’s almost certain that some of the legacy approaches that the leaders have been previously using to manage their people will contradict the culture that they must build to facilitate a Lean journey. These mixed messages will stop the desired transformation in its tracks.

I think that you can imagine three “spaces” within the organization that must be shaped and sustained by the leaders for the continuous improvement transformation to be successful:

  • The Space of Trust—this is the space of individual and collective trust relationships between the leadership and the staff; it is the “feeling” of trust within the organization. This space is crucial and foundational before the organizational journey can even commence.
  • The Space for Change—this is a smaller space, set within the Space of Trust, where organizational change happens. When this space is properly formed, the people begin to support change, get excited by change, and they even want to get involved with the changes themselves.
  • The Space for Continuous Improvement—this is the smallest space, contained within the Space for Change, and it consists of every continuous improvement event, activity, or effort. In the early days of a Lean journey, you must get colleagues to believe that the organization is serious about the transformation it is undertaking. As a result, the leaders must shape each continuous improvement event so that the team can be successful. When the team feels success, they start to believe. When others see teams of their colleagues succeed, they start to believe as well.

In short, the leaders cannot simply delegate to others the support of a Lean journey and expect success. This requires truly a shift in the culture of the organization, and the culture is defined by the behaviors of the leaders. Before the leaders can ask the staff to change, the leaders must be prepared first to change some of their own approaches to management.

What do you think of Brent's perspective? Have you seen instances in which leadership behavior completely contradicts the culture the organization is trying to foster through a Lean initiative?