Practical tips for managing Lean teams

Part 1 of this article provided some practical tips about the very basis of practicing Lean management – applying the 5 principles of Lean in practice. In part 2, you’ll learn the characteristics of an effective lean team, and how to achieve them.

Characteristics of an Effective Lean Team

All managers know that there are really only two things you can manage: your process, and your people.

In the ideal lean team:

  • Roles, duties, and responsibilities are clearly defined. Every team member knows without asking what they should be working on now, what they will work on next, and what the acceptance criteria are for their work
  • Every team and every individual on the team is empowered and encouraged to facilitate change and make improvements within their scope of responsibility
  • Every individual and every team remains engaged and effective. That means they are focused and aligned with team, department, and company goals. They work together in an environment that is supportive, collaborative, and where both success and failure are shared
  • The team is proactive. Visualizing work on a Kanban board makes it easy for everyone on the team to spot potential delays and roadblocks. The ideal lean team either adjusts behaviors within their area of responsibility to compensate or proactively seeks solutions and offers suggestions and support as appropriate

Obtaining these characteristics may require some time but it will be well worth the effort because it practically makes micromanagement unnecessary.

Lead with Respect

A great starting point for instilling Lean values and grow a lean Team is to Lead with Respect.

“Respect for people” is a management philosophy built on 5 distinctive principles:

Respect for People’s Opinion

Keep open feedback loops and frequently ask individual team members if they see areas of your process that can be improved.

Respect for People’s Suggestions

Evaluate and implement your team’s suggestions when they are worth trying, and give credit when it is due.

Respect for People’s Ability to Challenge

Create an atmosphere where people not only share their points of view when being asked, but they raise questions and challenge the process without being asked.

Respect for People No Matter Their Area of Work

Don’t evaluate suggestions based on expertise alone. Sometimes a developer might come up with a brilliant marketing idea and vice versa. Keep your mind open.

Apply the Coaching Kata

Another useful Lean practice for managing a team is to use the Coaching Kata. The Coaching Kata is a system whereby the manager asks questions and waits for the subordinate to respond, leading them down the path toward their own solution. The manager listens attentively, encourages creativity, and expresses a willingness to learn from the success of the subordinate.

Manager asking a team member the 7 questions of the coaching kata

The Coaching Kata is based on 7 key questions. These questions can be asked during a daily stand-up in front of the Kanban board, where problems are shared and visible, in small one-on-one coaching sessions, or in larger team meetings to focus and align the whole team.

The seven questions are:

  • What is the target condition?
  • What is the actual condition?
  • What obstacles prevent you from reaching the target condition?
  • Which one are you addressing now?
  • What is your next step?
  • What is your expected outcome?
  • When can we go see what you have learned?

Asking these questions and actively listening to the answers empowers team members to resolve their own problems by working together and taking responsibility for the actions and outcomes. The manager demonstrates active respect, trust, and support.

Lean assumes that every team and every individual has an important contribution to make, and it is your responsibility to lead and coach them in that direction. Lean coaching is hard on the problem and gentle with the people.

Achieving continuous improvement requires you to constantly refine your processes to remove waste and add value, and constantly cultivating your team to improve performance and work efficiently.

Done with respect, an open mind, and a spirit of continual learning, there is no end to how much you and your team can progress.

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