Everything you need to know about lean leadership

Darragh MacNeill
- Lean - Jan 10, 2015

In my view, Lean Leadership continues to represent the biggest challenge for organisations attempting transformational change. It is challenging because fully realising the value of Lean requires a change in how we think, work, behave and lead. Changing behaviours is a long process, and, just with kicking a bad habit, an abrupt change or withdrawal is rarely effective over a longer period. As such, behavioural change needs to be approached incrementally, taking on one or two behaviours at a time. And because everyone is different, each individual will experience their own personal improvement journey on the way to the target Lean Leadership behaviours. All this requires a real time commitment, and the support of a coach can be crucial to creating and sustaining a continuous improvement culture.

What is a situational coach?

In business, coaching is a key enabler for individuals and teams to reach their full potential. But just as in sport, where the most talented players do not necessarily make the best coaches, business leaders often need to develop the skills required to be good coaches to their teams. Situational coaching is a key element of an effective transformational programme, aiming to provide a safe and supportive environment to guide leaders through their own personal development journey in the context of their daily activities. The practice supports leaders to become role models for Lean, giving leaders an opportunity to reflect on their own behaviours and identify key points that can make a difference. In that way, situational coaching can close the gap between Lean tools and Lean thinking.

Cascading the coaching model

A cascaded coaching model takes the Lean behaviours passed on by external coaches through the situational coaching process, transferring them throughout the leadership hierarchy.  By advising senior leadership, external consultants can develop an organisations’ internal coaching capability and ensure that improvements are passed down and tangible benefits are being realised.

It starts with deep and narrow coaching, with potential coaches within the organisation identified based on both their knowledge of Lean and their ability to coach and mentor others. Specific training and on-the-job support should be provided as required for client coaches to start to connect the layers within their organisation. Once the right behaviours are established in this narrow ‘cross-section’, coaching can then spread across the organisation, firstly adding more teams and then more departments until each leader in the organisation has received the required dedicated coaching support.

Once the benefits of Lean Leadership behaviour become apparent, the effect quickly becomes infectious and a pull is created within the organisation. Once a critical mass of new leadership behaviour is reached, the sustainability of a transformation programme is ensured even before full deployment.

Though Lean thinking can be applied consistently, it is still important to remember that individuals at difference levels have different duties, and as such also have different responsibilities with regards to implementing Lean thinking within their organisation. Executive management need to be able to create a learning environment and translate the voice of customers and business purpose into policies, targets and standards.

The management team should be responsible for defining key performance indicator targets, and must therefore be able to specify improvement processes, and then translate these into optimising the end-to-end value stream. Supply Chain, or Value Stream managers, are responsible for implementing improvement processes and optimising cross-functional work flow. Unit managers must be able to lead cross-functional root cause analyses and optimise process flow. And finally team managers must be able to develop and support teams, facilitating continuous improvement.  All of the aforementioned are key pieces in the puzzle to achieving true transformational change. As such, it is important that these different responsibilities are taken into consideration when cascading the coaching model through the layers within an organisation.

The cascaded coaching model targets rapid but long-lasting cultural change, wherein Lean Leadership behaviours become the norm, by focussing on developing the coaching capability of the leadership team. Key elements include strong executive leadership, expert coaching capability, trusted coaching relationships and situational coaching in a Lean context.

When leaders are true role models for Lean behaviour, this inspires everyone within an organisation to deepen their understanding of Lean, fully engage with a transformational programme, and close the gap between Lean tools and Lean thinking to fully realise the value of Lean.

Darragh MacNeill is a Director at Hitachi Consulting – the specialist international management and technology consulting arm of Hitachi – and Lead of EMEA Operational Excellence. Darragh has over 25 years experience in consulting, engineering and operations management. He is a highly experienced lean practitioner and has been instrumental in developing situational coaching as a key leadership capability at a number of major clients. Darragh has a Bachelor of Engineering degree from the University of Limerick and an MBA from University College Dublin.

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