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Unpacking Lean Leadership

Written by :

Dr. Anthony Kenneson-Adams


Dr. Anthony Kenneson-Adams discusess how to identify Lean Leadership potential.

Leadership of Lean in business is far too important to leave to happenstance:  who is available, who is the next in line, what can we afford, who is the best out of what we already have?

If you want the best leadership available for your business and particularly on the shop floor, it will not happen by accident but only by a focused and well directed strategy.  In this four-part series I will help you think about business leadership as a cohesive program by answering these four questions.

  1. How do we identify Lean Leadership potential?
  2. How do we build a diverse Leadership Team
  3. Once Identified how would we train them?
  4. Once trained how would we nurture them and keep them in our business, rather than be training them up for their next employer?
  5. Once they are adding value, how do we develop these leaders to be the next generation of Lean Leaders in our organization, particularly bearing in mind the needs of Leadership 5.0

Make sure to tune in over the next 4 weeks for each update, and if you would like a head start on your competitors take a look at the Project7 Lean Leadership Academy at Lean Leadership & Management Academy and then drop me a note if you have any questions.


Identifying Lean Manufacturing leadership potential in an organization is essential, but it necessitates effort and focused strategic intent.  There is nothing accidental about great leadership in an organization, and that goes for shift supervisors, operating theatre managers, middle managers or CEOs.

To build the next generation of Lean leaders, current leaders must first know what to look for in the next generation and recognize the specific traits and behaviors from all areas of the business that align with Lean leadership principles. In this first of four articles on ‘Unpacking Lean Leadership’ I am going to offer some guidelines from my 40 years’ military and industrial experience that will help you accelerate great Lean leadership in your business. Buckle up!


Understanding Lean Principles

Look out for those junior personnel in your business who already grasp or exhibit Lean behaviors.  These could be team members who are enthusiastic about Lean principles, tell others about the advantages of Lean and already look for opportunities to use the Lean principles to bring about continuous improvement. These individuals may instinctively operate the principles of Lean even when they do not yet know the Lean tools or ‘buzz words.’ My experience is that these people will easily pick up the tools of Lean; far more effort is required to build the leadership behaviors and culture so utilize their enthusiasm and put your effort into identifying potential.  You can also identify these individuals by asking yourself the following questions:

Do they try creating value from the customer’s perspective?

Do they identify waste in the value stream and do something about it?

Do they identify weaknesses in processes flow and smooth out variance?

Do they only produce what is needed by the customer and importantly question excess?

Individuals who model these behaviors are valuable assets to your business and merit the opportunity through training and coaching to become Lean leaders.


Observing Key Traits and Skills

Now I will look at some of the key traits and skill sets needed in your current and future Lean leaders.

Problem-Solving Skills: Lean leaders need to be problem solvers or at least not be content to sit back when they see things going wrong.  Potential Lean leaders are those people who are not content with the status quo but who proactively look for solutions.  It is my experience that these people exist in almost all organizations where leadership are open to the creativity of their people.  Look for those who bring you solutions, rather than those who only ever bring problems for you to solve.  Be open to potential leaders who use data to identify root causes who naturally apply logical problem-solving methodologies even if they do not understand  buzz words like PDCA, or DMAIC, and also acknowledge those who demonstrate persistence in resolving issues even if not using traditional Lean tool. Dogged determination is critical in Lean leadership and is a personality trait needed in all Lean leaders.

Continuous Improvement (CI) Mindset: CI is more a matter of mindset, culture and intent than knowing the Lean tool kit, after all people were solving problems long before the Toyota Production System (TPS), CI buzz words, or Lean tools.  In my own experience of being a Royal Air Force engineer for 30 years, we lived CI and Lean principles, but in all my service I never heard about what is now universally known as TPS or Lean.   In looking for your next generation of potential Lean leaders, identify those who consistently seek ways to improve processes, who naturally encourage and implement their own CI ideas and particularly those who have the mindset and take time to regularly review their ideas and refine workflows.

Customer Focus: Whatever business you are in, be that manufacturing, banking, health, or whatever, your success is dependent on your customers repeat business and ensuring that you always try and exceed customer expectations.  For example, out of several options in my town there is only one garage where I will take my car, and that is directly due to Scott on the front desk who always exceeds my expectations, is polite and is an excellent communicator.  Every business leader needs to be a Scott!  Potential Lean leaders prioritize customer needs by understanding customer expectations and acting on feedback and aligning processes and improvements with customer value.  If you have individuals working with you who have a keen sense of the customer need, put effort into these people as I have seen time and again how these people can literally save a business.

Leadership and Influence: Lean leadership involves guiding and inspiring teams so look for the following in your current and potential Lean Leaders.  Lean leadership is more about the right influence, rather that the traditional ‘telling’ and ‘leading by shouting.’

Ability to lead cross-functional teams:  Your leaders must be interested in all departments and learn their language and build cross-functional relationships.  Leaders must break down all barriers using every interaction as an opportunity.

Effective communication skills: Leaders must learn how to be active listeners far more than active talkers.  When leaders listen, understand and act, they build relationships, integrity and credibility.

Encouraging collaboration and teamwork: Participative Action Research has shown that collaboration is a force multiplier in all areas of business.  Bringing all stakeholders together to find the very best solutions, rather than the traditional ‘stove pipe’ and ‘top-down’ thinking is proven to be the way forward in business.  Remember a team is more than just a group of people; a team is a culture, a force, a thinking way and a business driver.  Find the people who naturally engender collaboration and teamwork.

Mentoring and developing others: The worst thing you can do is to employ someone and then expect them to just ‘survive’.  Invest in the whole person, put effort into their development and it will pay dividends in business efficiency and also employee retention.  Mobility is very prevalent in the post millennial workforce but only where those people do not ‘feel’ valued’ and are not rewarded accordingly – and this is not just about salary.

Adaptability and Flexibility:  Lean environments are dynamic and potential leaders must be able to adapt quickly to changes, be open to new ideas and approaches and importantly be able to manage stress and uncertainty effectively.



Identifying Lean manufacturing leadership potential requires a comprehensive approach, combining the observation of key traits and behaviors with formal nurturing programs and continuous development. By focusing on problem-solving skills, a continuous improvement mindset, customer focus, and effective leadership abilities, organizations can cultivate leaders who drive Lean transformation and create lasting value.