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Lean Leadership: Empowering Instead of Instructing

Much can be learned from Lean Management: Understanding the value for the customer, then identifying the value stream and optimizing the flow to avoid unnecessary effort and last but not least ensuring continuous improvement. However, the focus should not only be on the application of other and better methods, but also on a different leadership culture. The second pillar of the Toyota Way therefore is respect for people. At the core of Lean Management are the people as its essential success factor. The motto of Lean Leadership is therefore “empowering not instructing “. This principle deserves to be disseminated at least as vigorously as the well-known concepts and methods of Lean Management.

The rise of Toyota after the Second World War is inextricably linked with the name Taiichi Ōno He has significantly influenced and further developed the Toyota Production System. What is today known as Lean Manufacturing and more generally as Lean Management originates largely from him. As a result, Toyota succeeded in significantly increasing productivity and not only catching up with the American competition from Detroit, but outperforming it. The concepts and methods spread not only in the manufacturing industry but in many other industries—including IT, where the Agile Manifesto can be interpreted as an application of lean principles to the process of software development.

The invention and introduction of some groundbreaking concepts and methods by an ingenious engineer, as this hero story might suggest at first glance, does not sufficiently explain this successful transformation of Toyota. The basis of this transformation was rather the change in leadership. The individual worker was no longer seen as a passively affected object, but rather as an actively involved subject of change.

Standards should not be forced down from above but rather set by the production workers themselves.

Taiichi Ōno

In his book “The Toyota Mindset, The Ten Commandments of Taiichi Ohno” (Amazon Affiliate-Link) Yoshihito Wakamatsu, who worked many years directly under Taiichi Ōno, reports the following anecdote. During a visit to a Toyota plant, Ōno was accompanied by a manager. This manager noticed some misapplication of the Toyota production system and asked Ōno why he had not corrected them immediately. The answer was:

I am being patient. I cannot use my authority to force them to do what I want them to do. It would not lead to good quality products. What we must do is to persistently seek understanding from the shop floor workers by persuading them of the true virtues of the Toyota System. After all, manufacturing is essentially a human development that depends heavily on how we teach our workers.

Taiichi Ōno

This example illustrates the basic philosophy underlying Lean Leadership. Instead of correcting or teaching, the aim is to empower. A correction of the processes from the outside would only tackle the symptoms in the short term, but would not result in any sustainable change. The only way to achieve this is to improve the empowerment of the workers based on a deeper understanding of the principles.

This lean leadership philosophy enables the individual worker to actively contribute to change and continuous improvement—and the resulting broad impact makes the decisive difference in such a transformation. That should be remembered again today, where in many companies the agile transformation is reduced to the introduction of blueprints and frameworks and thus comes to a dead end.

New: The Book on the Manifesto for Human(e) Leadership

On the occasion of the first anniversary I published a detailed version of the Manifesto for Human(e) Leadership on Leanpub. And best of all, the price is up to you! I am looking forward to feedback and impulses on the one hand and, of course, to broad dissemination on the other.

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Hi, I'm Marcus. I'm convinced that elephants can dance. Therefore, I accompany organizations on their way towards a more agile way of working. Since 2010 I regularly write about leadership, digitization, new work, agility, and much more in this blog. More about me.

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