More and more companies are looking to implement improvements to remove waste from their processes and drive efficiency. However simply saying that the business is going to be lean doesn’t wave a magic wand. Lean isn’t something you can just do for the short term and by next quarter you’ve turned into Toyota. Also merely picking some improvement tools and ‘rolling them out’ to a site isn’t going to work. In fact leaders are the key to any success, and leadership behaviour is especially important for those that have direct interaction with the shop floor or other front line activities (although I would argue that every level of leader should have some level of contact).

Considering the concept of lean as described by Womack and Jones has been around for over twenty years you would think that we would know how to get it right by now. But the fact that more than ninety percent of lean implementations fail, says otherwise. The reason that lean persists despite the failure rates is because done right, the results are so alluring.

My own experience leads me to strongly state that, improvement activities fail because of poor leadership behaviours. If you recognise any of the reasons below in either yourself or management team, it may be time to take a step back and adjust your thinking and/or behaviours if you want to be successful. Our management consultants can help you with this.


Leadership behaviour is constantly monitored as we progress in our organisations. Everyone should understand how important this is. As leaders it is easy to think we know everything, especially if we have worked our way up through the business. `I knowhow this process is done, no need to involve anyone from the shop floor.’ The person that works on a process everyday is always the best person to talk about it. Having some experience of that process a while ago is great but no longer so valid. The people that perform the activity understand the problems and frustrations of the process now. They must be involved in improvement activities if we want solutions to be the right ones. Also, involvement in resolving problems means that solutions are more likely to sustain. Workforces often resist imposed changes, engaging with them quickly removes this resistance.


I have experience of some very uncomfortable meetings. Negativity towards improvement has been forged by bad leadership behaviour, and not listened to the workforce. When asking staff to tell us their problems, and inviting them to solve them. We have to listen to them.


It is easy for leaders to tell others to carry out projects or event. Leaders involved in improvement activities can understand the thinking used by those making changes. Leaders shouldn’t go to events with predetermined solutions. They should use the activity as a learning experience the same as everyone else. You don’t have to go to every lean event, but being a full-time team member occasionally, sends a positive message that improvement is important.


An Operational Excellence Manager in the US first used ‘Seagulling”. Meaning, don’t turn up unannounced and defecate all over solutions that people have worked hard to produce. Arguably, the worst kind of leadership behaviour. It undermines people and the process itself. It can be really demotivating for people too. If you want to discuss solutions and your ideas, actually take part in the event.


‘We can’t stop production to sort this out.’ Maybe you’re busy because you’re having to fire fight a lot of different problems. Stopping to fix a process properlywill give you less stress in the long term. No sticking plasters, but actual root cause problem solving is the way forward. If you are busy running around fixing the same problem you had two months ago, then is it really a crazy idea to take some time to fix it so it doesn’t come back? What type of leadership behaviour do you want your followers to exhibit?


If we want to encourage continuous improvement and root cause problem solving, then we need to stop rewarding people who don’t demonstrate these behaviours. For example, if someone gets praise and a pat on the back for firefighting and ‘saving the day’, then that only encourages that kind of behaviour. Reward those that do the right things, and hold those accountable who don’t. Start recognising people in the business that demonstrate the correct lean leadership behaviours.


This relates to all things already mentioned above. If you say the company is going to be lean then you need the leadership behaviour to shape it. This means taking part. Also, allowing others the time to take part, and rewarding those demonstrating the right leadership behaviour. If in meetings about production problems you say things like ‘just rinse them!’ (Them, being skilled operators). If you see this as a solution to an arrears problem, you aren’t getting it.


People will occasionally make mistakes, or come up with solutions that aren’t exactly right. However, if we trust teams of people to experiment and come up with solutions, we are driving the right culture. The company will not implode if an experimental solution yields a 30% improvement instead of the 70% target. We also need to remember that 95% of people want to do the right things for the business. Don’t penalise this 95% by shaping policy to control the other 5%. Remove the 5%.


If you make improvement about headcount it will fail. Imagine if someone said to you, ‘we’re going to do lean to reduce headcount’. Would you take part thinking your job was at risk? probably not. This includes talking about not replacing people after retirement etc The message people get is the same. Improvement should increase customer value. It should give us the potential to expand and grow our business.

These are some ways that that poor leadership behaviour can be detrimental to improvement. Remember that the company should not be aiming to ‘do’ lean but instead become lean.

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