In all too many organizations, “manager” is nothing more than a different job description and pay scale. Managers go to more and different meetings, and complete more and different paperwork, but aren’t fundamentally different from other employees. They don’t require more of a person as a mentor or as a leader, and they don’t require a manager to exhibit certain key personality traits and behaviors.
Organizations that have adopted Lean management are different and ask more of every supervisor. Lean companies ask managers to be leaders, to not only accomplish a certain set of tasks but demonstrate a certain set of values.
Furthermore, while a traditional leader can’t make managers out of their whole team, a Lean manager can and should elevate and empower everyone around them to become a leader in their own right.
The Fundamental Traits of a Successful Lean Manager
A Lean manager wants honesty and authenticity from their team, so they must behave authentically themselves. Such a leader doesn’t shy away from unpleasant truths in order to craft an appealing appearance. Nonetheless, a true Lean manager would want to know how things really are.
The Gemba Walk or spending time on the front lines where the work is actually being processed is meant to enable the leader to truly understand the workflow and the team running it. It is only with authenticity that problems can truly be discovered, acknowledged, and solved.
Lean managers should constantly ask questions. They need to be interested in the process as well as the outcome, constantly in a state of learning and discovery. They must mentor employees by asking questions that help the employee make their own decisions and become more independent.
Displaying an ongoing, non-judgmental curiosity and open, questioning mindset fosters authenticity and encourages continuous learning and discovery at every level.
A Lean manager should always treat everyone with respect. When employees and stakeholders are treated with respect, they are encouraged to grow, learn, and improve. Respect for people fosters authenticity and is demonstrated by active curiosity and supportive mentorship.
Lean leaders demonstrate respect not just by empowering subordinates, but by devoting themselves to creating a work environment in which they can be successful. Respect is one of the pillars of Lean thinking, and when a leader models respect for everyone, it shows team members how to be respectful of each other.
Fostering improvement by asking questions and demonstrating a willingness to learn takes time. An impatient leader may be tempted to step in and tell people what to do, but that can be disrespectful and inhibits the growth of the team.
The Lean practice of “stopping the line” empowers everyone on the team to stop work in order to come together and solve a problem, because a Lean team values quality over quantity. A Lean leader is focused on long-term goals: the long-term value for the customer, the long-term growth of their team, and the long-term outcome of present actions. It is not a role for an impatient person.
While we tend to think of perfectionism as being incompatible with an open mind and a questioning mentality, they not only go together but are an integral aspect of Lean leadership and Lean organizations. The Lean leader is not focused on momentary success, but on continuous improvement. Everything that is done well can be done better, with more efficiency and a less wasteful process.
While it’s listed last, it is perhaps the most important characteristic on this list. Conventional thinking may be that a leader is the best or the most capable, but a true Lean leader doesn’t think of themselves that way. In fact, most business failures, large and small, can be attributed to poor leadership.
Lean managers need to be modest and employ the principle of “hansei,” or self-reflection. Reflecting on one’s own flaws and weaknesses allows one to acknowledge them authentically, and constantly work on self-improvement.
The active curiosity, drive for improvement, respectful behavior, patience, and authenticity listed above are impossible without a humble attitude. Humility builds trust, which is at the core of a successful Lean team.
A person who naturally possesses many of these traits is already well on the way to being a good Lean manager. A person who believes that management is about service, about devoting themselves to removing obstacles for their subordinates, fostering their growth, and celebrating their successes, is on the way to becoming an excellent Lean manager.
A good Lean leader is a mentor, coach, strategist, servant, and expert all at once. From the list above, it may seem they need to be a saint as well. But remember that continuous improvement applies at all levels.
Approached with humility and a willingness to improve, the Lean leader should constantly seek to embody Lean principles and values, even when it means cultivating greater respect or humility. When they fail, they analyze their behavior honestly and correct it with patience. Lean management is bounded by innate personality traits because Lean is not a state, it is a journey.