Lean Leadership Compass

Why You Need to Become a Lean Leader

The term Lean leader has been increasingly used in recent years, and with good reason.  It’s critical to the success of any Lean transformation, including agile project management. To be sure, there are two key components to successful leadership when it comes to Lean projects.

  1. An understanding of the theory and principles of Lean (what it is and why it works),
  2. The experience in applying these principles in real-world situations (for example, managing software development projects).

But what does a true Lean leader look like? What do they do that makes them different from other managers? 

In the words of W. Edward Deming:

The aim of leadership is not merely to find and record failures, but to remove the causes of failure: to help people to do a better job with less effort.

True leadership comes from taking the necessary steps to improve everything that you do.  This includes your team’s performance. Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions about what it takes to be an effective leader.  If you’re looking to learn how to lead with Lean principles, this article will help provide an overview of why it’s important to Lead with Lean.

Theory and Principles of Lean

Lean is a set of principles for improving business performance, customer satisfaction, and employee engagement through a systematic approach to eliminating waste in a process or activity throughout your organisation. Lean was originally developed by Taiichi Ohno of Toyota Motor Corporation between 1948 and 1975.  His team were looking for ways to reduce overall production costs by optimising activities at each step of a manufacturing process. 

However, eliminating waste can mean different things depending on your line of work.  In some industries, Lean might mean reducing excess inventory, while in others it might be about paring down repetitive administrative tasks. But regardless of industry, all Lean systems are built around 5 basic principles:

  • Understanding that value is determined by the customer.
  • The processes to deliver value can be defined in value streams.
  • Our goal is to ensure that processes flow and deliver a great customer experience.
  • Your work should be in line with customer demand and resources pulled when required.
  • Strive to achieve perfection in what we deliver.

What are the Benefits of using Lean

In our experience, we believe that an organisation’s leadership is often the key difference between an engaged and unengaged workforce and between a culture of high productivity and low performance. A high performing organisation uses its leadership to inspire, motivate and provide the best resources for the business.  This organisation has an ownership and commitment to these activities. It is aware that problems arise, and it works through problem solvers to solve these problems through collaborative effort. The business has a clear action plan, and it routinely reviews its own performance to ensure that it is meeting its commitments and goals.

On the other hand, a low performing organisation frequently engages in activities which do not bring about the necessary transformation or improvement.

The approach of a Lean leader is about taking responsibility for others, creating a vision and then working through the principles to make it a reality. A leader does not claim ownership or responsibility for others.  Rather, the leader works through those principles and applies them in a manner that impacts the organisation. It is not the leader who initiates change, but the transformation is made in the context of the framework established by the leader.

The Role of a Lean Leader

This is where knowing your role as a leader is essential. If you don’t know what Lean leadership means, think of it as being equivalent to project management or design thinking. Wherever there are issues in need of solving, there needs to be a leader who has all of the tools required to solve them. This is an important point when considering just what makes up Lean leadership skills, because they aren’t confined strictly to manufacturing environments. In order for any company that relies on design thinking or project management for problem-solving operations—whether they call them sprints or not—to truly use their potential, they must have leaders who understand how these principles work from beginning to end.

Lean Leadership Meeting

1) Lean makes products more competitive by reducing costs, increasing efficiency, and enhancing quality.

2) Lean leaders improve their organisations’ overall performance and profitability.

3) Applying Lean methods improves employee engagement and workplace satisfaction.

4) You’ll create a corporate culture where employees feel empowered; rather than undervalued or overworked.

5) It’s a systematic approach to continuous improvement, which is an important aspect of driving profitable growth for your business over time.

6) Introducing effective change management practices will increase morale while eliminating waste from your workflow – helping you avoid nasty surprises along the way.

7) It’s an excellent starting point if you’re interested in embracing innovation through rapid prototyping.

8) Most importantly, implementing Lean means valuing people first – not money – and avoiding common pitfalls such as budget-driven objectives.

Traits of a Successful Lean Leader 

Be Adaptive

The adaptive leadership style is all about agility. The successful Lean leader knows how to adjust when needed. They are willing to take risks in order to speed up when necessary, but they can also scale back in times of uncertainty or when it is required. It’s important that leadership not be scared of failure in these situations because without risk there will never be success.

Don’t be Afraid of Failure

A successful Lean leader knows when to try something different in order to see results which means they aren’t afraid of failures along the way. They’re able to pivot their strategies quickly because they understand why or why not it would work within their organisation.

Be Resilient

Lean leaders know how difficult transformation can be. There will be good days and bad days; weeks where everything goes right, and others where everything seems to go wrong. In order for a Lean leader to remain resilient during times of change , they must have an intrinsic drive from within themselves. This drive allows them to push through obstacles whether real or imagined in order to complete tasks at hand.

Lead from Example

Lean leaders do not ask others to do what they themselves haven’t done before. If you ask someone else to do a task that you yourself haven’t done then it becomes difficult for them to trust your leadership capabilities going forward.

They’re not easy tasks, but Lean leaders can be successful by keeping these principles in mind as they set out to improve their organisations. It will be time well spent because becoming a Lean leader doesn’t just help you grow professionally.  Furthermore, it helps your company develop world-class products and services with higher customer satisfaction. That ultimately boosts corporate profitability which is an exciting prospect for any business leader.

Why you should put Lean first

If you’re already familiar with Lean principles, then by now we hope that you’ve seen at least some of its benefits in your business, or have a sense of how Lean could be valuable for your business. For many people though, especially non-manufacturing companies, Lean might still seem less than relevant to their daily work lives. This is because most businesses struggle so much just getting out one release of product on time every quarter or just finishing up one major project per year that they have little time to look beyond what they are already working on—to focus on ways to improve their processes. That lack of focus is understandable, but it can also be costly.

By not looking at opportunities outside your immediate business goals, you miss chances to innovate both productively and creatively. We know there are plenty of innovative things happening within production teams these days. They’re using new technology, prototyping exciting new products, applying Lean techniques.  But if there’s only change happening within production itself, then who will think about driving innovation across your entire organisation? To do something truly amazing as an organisation, someone needs to step back from looking at day-to-day operations.  Someone needs to spend time examining all aspects of how work gets done across an entire company.  Someone needs to lead with Lean.

Applying Lean Principles to your Business

Lean leaders are able to identify problems and resolve them through the use of problem solvers.  These are people who work in teams (rather than acting as leaders in a single file) and who are motivated to make the transformation and improvements. Problem solvers are a crucial part of a Lean leadership system because they help to align a group of people who are working towards a common goal.

Lean leadership, therefore, is about continuous improvement, and it is not something that occurs only at the start or in the course of a particular project. Lean management principles have been developed over years, and are now part of the mainstream of business philosophy. Lean principles are also incorporated into many employees’ performance appraisal systems, which allow companies to measure performance based on performance. Most importantly, they help employees feel like they are making a difference, which helps to drive improvement. Employees know that they can contribute something to the company’s success and they don’t feel like their work is being overlooked, when in fact it is being valued and recognised for its value.

Lean principles are also at the core of a leadership program. The basic premise of the model is that there must be a continuous flow of improvement within an organisation in order to remain competitive. The model also recognises that organisations will encounter bumps in the road, and these bumps can be corrected if the correct action plan has been laid out and implemented from the outset. By leading with excellence, and delivering results, organisations ensure that these bumps are never encountered. And this is where the real value of the Lean transformation shines through.  Organisations that embrace the Lean approach enjoy continuous improvement within their operations, and their ability to compete in the marketplace, as well as, help their customers to do the same.

Lean leaders know that they must continually drive towards greater efficiency. If an organisation is not committed to improving the way they perform, or feels they are sliding backwards, they will soon find themselves in the same situation as their competition. In a world where nothing is constant, and change is inevitable, the only way to lead with certainty is to ensure that you are prepared to build a culture of long-term thinking and commitment to excellence. If the organisation that you lead is sliding backwards, then you need to ensure that you are not allowing your organisation to fall into the same trap. This requires you to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the organisation, as well as the current trends and activities, to determine the actions required to turn things around. And whilst it may seem counterintuitive, by focusing on the strengths and addressing the weaknesses in your organisation, you actually end up positioning yourself as the leader that’s prepared to take the reins and make the necessary changes in order to turn things around.

When it comes to leadership, it is important to understand that although the short term might be all consuming and exciting, the far longer-term results are likely to remain focused on building sustainable culture and improving productivity. If you understand that your organisation is operating in a Lean environment, you will know that you are able to address issues and concerns, set priorities, create action plans, and execute them. If you want to be the leader that leads by example, then you need to embrace Lean thinking and transform your organisation.

Lean Leader with employees


As the world of business becomes more competitive, savvy entrepreneurs are turning to Lean leadership as a way to cut costs and improve efficiency and profits across their organisations. Lean leadership brings business practices into the 21st century by combining the best aspects of traditional leadership styles with modern trends in communication and motivation. If you’re interested in becoming a Lean Leader, contact us about our Lean Introduction for Leaders training programme.

We hope you enjoyed reading about ‘Why you need to become a Lean Leader’.  You may also be interested in reading about our insights on Building a Lean Culture and Lean Management.  All our blogs are available to read here.  Please connect with us on Linkedin and Twitter.

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