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Michael Balle

Michael Ballé: Lean leaders make people before they make parts

By Michael Balle, co-author of The Gold Mine and The Lean Manager - Last updated: Wednesday, March 14, 2012 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

Management is essentially about getting people to do what you want them to do, like having an extra pair of arms to implement your ideas, whereas leadership is about getting people to fight your battles for you. These are two very different approaches to any organizational role. In that sense, whether lean or not, leadership is about how you interpret your job, and then how successful you are at doing what you had in mind.

There are endless studies and books about “leadership” and no one has quite put the finger on what it is that makes some leaders great. On the other hand, as Peter Drucker pointed out: “I am amazed that today’s prominent writers on leadership do not seem to realize that the three most charismatic leaders in all recorded history were named Hitler, Stalin and Mao.” Sobering thought. On the other hand, he adds: “The test of any leader is not what he or she accomplishes. It is what happens when they leave the scene. It is the succession that is the test. If the enterprise collapses the moment these wonderful, charismatic leaders leave, that is not leadership. That is — very bluntly — deception.”

Lean is unique in assuming that leadership can be taught. In the foreword to Jeff’s superb Toyota Way to Lean Leadership, Akio Toyoda describes the Toyota Way as: “a constant journey to find new and better ways to develop Toyota leaders.” Toyoda pursues: At Toyota we have always invested heavily in developing leaders who understand and live the principles and values of the company. We want our DNA to be encoded in every leader and every team member at every level of the company. We expect greatness from all of our people. We expect them to accept and conquer challenges that may seem overwhelming at first glance. The greatness in people comes out only when they are led by great leaders. We are all growing and learning, and we all need teachers and coaches to help guide us. We say at Toyota that every leader is a teacher developing the next generation of leaders. This is their most important job.”

As human beings we tend to explain events by other events – this is intuitive, occasionally correct, but mostly wrong. Events, particularly behavior-type events are better explained by their underlying processes, and even more by the conditions supporting these processes. Superior processes are created by investing in the right conditions, which is where training leaders matters so much. Leaders need to see beyond the event and the process to the conditions where real causes can be found.

What’s more, Toyota has a specific technique to develop leadership. It’s kinda surprising because it doesn’t seem to be about leadership at all, but there it is:

  1. Go to the gemba, the real place
  2. Teach people to visualize activities
  3. Coach them to formulate and solve problems one by one
  4. Challenge them to think deeper and seek root cause
  5. Study the countermeasures they come up with

Each one of these steps is a very specific leadership interaction, which demands collaboration from both the boss and the employee. For this “problems first” attitude to work, managers also need to enforce a rigorous “NOT GUILTY” policy. Bad news are welcome. Mistakes are teachable moments.

In practical terms, shifting from being a manager to a leader means that instead of asking the question “how can I solve this problem?” you substitute the question “who would benefit from learning to solve this problem?” Rather than figuring out yourself and then going to the guy in charge of the right department to “make it so”, you do ry to think of an answer, but then you pick one person in your organization and give them the challenge to go ahead and deal with the issue – under your supervision. This is not a case of “bring back results, I don’t what to hear about how you do it”, but, on the contrary, of having the self-restraint to treat every situation (well, most) as a development opportunity, and then to patiently turn the PDCA wheel. And stay the course.

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