Characteristics of Lean Leadership

Key Definitions

1.    Lean thinking – This is a methodology for enhancing quality and cycle time through the eradication of waste.

2.    Gemba  – Gemba is a Japanese term which means "the real place‘; or in business context "workplace' or ‘the place where value is created".

3.    Metrics – A methodology for measuring things.

There is often a missing link in many Lean organizations - which is, the set of leadership structures and behaviors that constitute a lean management system. People frequently equate ‘Lean' with the tools used to standardize processes and generate efficiencies; and organizations tend to focus more on the implementation of these tools. However, implementing tools only accounts for, at most, 20% of the effort needed in lean transformations. The remaining 80% should be spent on changing leaders' behaviors and practices; and eventually their mindsets.

Senior management has a critical role to play in the establishment of conditions that facilitate the success of the 80% of the effort. Their involvement includes:

  • Holding every person accountable for meeting lean commitments;

  • Supporting a rigorous, long-term vision of the value-producing processes of their organizations; and 

  • Establishing governance arrangements that traverse divisional boundaries,

All this can only be accomplished through direct and regular involvement. If senior management sets the example, then a lean leadership mindset and durable lean success will follow.

Leadership Roles in Sustaining Lean

Lean management bridges a crucial divide: the gap between lean thinking and lean tools. A lean management system separates lean initiatives which begin nicely but stall, from those that deliver additional improvement and sustain existing gains. Seniors leaders have an essential role to play in lean management. Their contribution is particularly vital in:

1.    The transformation of commitments to change into real change, as well as supporting and sustaining new practices and behaviors;

2.    The development and implementation of processes and structures, which anticipate and respond to the problems of a lean initiative that extends across internal boundaries;

3.    Increasing the probability of process improvements surviving the transition to ongoing process, from project mode; 

4.    Creating conditions that allow the development of a sustainable lean culture of continuous improvement.

5.    The establishment and maintenance of new, process-focused measures of results alongside standard measures;

For an enterprise-wide lean initiative to be successful, leaders at the three organizational levels have complementary roles to play as shown in Table 1 below.

Roles of Leadership in Sustaining Lean









Strategic: Senior Level

(CEO,VPs, Seniors)

Governance; Oversight and steering

Supporting a cross-boundary


Measurement; Adherence

to processes post-project

Monitoring intersection

measures; Gemba walks


Function Level (Directors, VPs)


Meeting project commitments;

Managing intersection


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Disciplined adherence;

Commitments to

post-project processes

Collaborating in process

management; Gemba


Tactical: Department Level (Supervisors, Managers)

Tactical Lean

Management System

Disciplined adherence;

Gemba walks

Associate engagement;



Teaching and practicing root

cause problem solving

Table 1: Organizational Roles and Contributions for Sustaining a Lean Initiative

The overlap between adjacent organizational levels as shown in Table 1 above reinforces continuity of support for new practices, in all areas of the organization – for example, the gemba walks (which take managers to the front lines in search of opportunities for improvement); attention to processes performance at intersections; and disciplined adherence. This continuity maintains the lean management system and the internal integrity of lean tool implementations.

The success of any lean organization is therefore directly linked to efficient and effective leadership, as this plays a critical role in driving all the improvement initiatives within the institution. Lean leadership inspires behavioral change that fosters complete lean transformation.

But what exactly is Lean Leadership?

Lean leadership is defined by the ability to empower and enable people. It revolves around the concept of helping people achieve professional and personal growth; and allowing them to take pride in both their work and themselves. This kind of leadership promotes the development of a continuous improvement culture in an organization, through worker interaction, decision-making and communication.

The goals of any institution that's looking to implement lean leadership mainly revolve around simultaneous improvement of:

  • Safety

  • Quality

  • Morale

  • Cost

  • Delivery (reducing delays and waiting)

Primarily, the objective is to achieve long-term success for the organization and everyone else involved – owners, employees, customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders.

The Need for Leadership

Since lean institutions are built upon the concept of continuous improvement, for this improvement to be achieved there must be change within the organization, and sometimes large dramatic change is required. It is the role of leadership to produce and sustain this continuous change in a lean organization. Basically, if change happening, then someone must be leading - because it takes leadership to drive successful change.

Lean Leadership Behavior and Actions

In a lean organization changes occur in all processes at all the areas of the institution. Therefore, lean leadership is required at all levels to ensure overall success. From the CEO to plant managers to supervisors and unit leaders, every leader has an essential role to play in sustaining the lean program. Ultimately, they have find ways to drive continuous change and maintain momentum from year to year. There is really no sure-fire approach to achieve this, but there are specific actions and behaviors which leaders at all levels can take, to sustain a lean initiative and ensure the program continues delivering long-term results and benefits to the organization.

Some of the specific behaviors, practices, and tactics which leaders at all levels must deploy to keep the organization moving forward; and the employees and teams motivated include:

1.    Communicate the Vision:

It's the leaders' role to set the vision as well as develop the organization's culture. They must provide regular and consistent communication to their employees regarding the specific returns the organization is reaping from the lean initiative, and how this benefits them. Employees have to understand how the lean program impacts on the organization's financial performance, overall competitiveness, and, of course, job security.

2.    Consistently Update Standard Work:

Reinforcing standard work with visual work instructions based on the kaizen improved processes, can aid in making sure employees stick to the right work procedures. Such standards help the organization to avoid falling back to the old ways of doing things.  Leadership must also ensure to communicate that standard work processes are at all times open to modification.

3.    Go on Gemba Walks:

Going to the gemba literally means going to the actual workplace where the leader can engage with the employees face-to-face. Gemba walks generally involves an executive or other top-level managers observing select functions and processes in the workplace, with the goal of assisting other continuous-improvement personnel such as plant leaders, to see high-priority and potential areas for improvement. While at the Gemba, it's important that leaders make a habit of asking their employees what steps they've made in their daily or weekly activities, towards making continuous improvement happen. Asking such questions on a regular basis ensures that, employees soon learn what's important and what they are required to be working on.

4.    Develop a Culture of Continuous Improvement:

True lean leadership fosters continuous improvement even when the ideas for improvement do not measure up to expectations. A lean leader empowers their workers to take on the responsibility for resolving their own problems, by making it acceptable to attempt something even if it does not work out. It's essential to demonstrate that participating in improvement activities, challenging existing practices, and observing processes, are all part of a complete problem solving approach that will advance the organization.

5.    Build a Respectful, Team Driven Organization:

In any lean initiative, teamwork is an extremely important element because it's necessary that staff from different departments work in cooperation, to enhance processes which almost always traverse functional boundaries. Encouraging everyone to give their suggestions and acknowledging their ideas, is one approach that teamwork demonstrates respect. Creating an environment of mutual trust and respect is a crucial element of any lean initiative. Yet leadership frequently overlooks this, since they mainly focus on process improvement.

6.     Keep Employees Motivated:

For any initiative, employee enthusiasm is naturally bound to wane, as time goes by. Participating fully in a continuous-improvement program goes beyond standard job descriptions, and the scope of most worker compensation programs. This is where, leaders personally taking part in the process of continuous-improvement clearly show the commitment of the organization.  For instance, they can take part in kaizen events and participate in the problem-solving process. Leadership can also motivate workers by encouraging each individual to find ways of permanently improving their work; and by increasing employee autonomy.

7.    Maintain Regular Training:

Another approach that leadership can take to sustain a lean initiative in their organization is through, continuous training of all workers (including their supervisors), in the enhanced and redesigned work processes. Also, cross-training employees is absolutely necessary. Workers who've been trained in all primary work processes often display a more proprietary attitude towards enhancing their individual work processes and putting forward ideas to enhance other processes as well.

8.    Reinforce Progress and Performance with Visual- Management Tools and Metrics:

Leadership can also make use of constantly updated metrics and visual-management tools, to show employees how their individual and team efforts are furthering the organization's lean efforts. Keeping track of performance metrics and reporting helps in sustaining the company's commitment to lean, at all levels in the organization.

9.    Post Continuous-Improvement

Keeping track of the organization's progress on a month to month basis, provides leadership with an opportunity to monitor results; and it also reinforces accountability.

Lean Leadership Style     

Lean style of leadership differs from the earlier models of leadership - The 1980s "Empowerment" Style - "Do it your way... "; and the Old "Dictator" Style - "Do it my way…".  The lean style of leadership can be described as "Follow me…let's figure this out together". True Lean Leaders lead in the following way:

  • By setting the vision and developing the organization's culture.

  • By establishing processes and systems that cascade responsibility and develop people

  • By persuasion

  • By coaching and teaching

  • By example

  • By getting into the messy details

  • By being knowledgeable

Principles of Lean Leadership  

Because lean demands continuous innovation and new processes, leadership in a lean organization is constantly faced with unique problems as they strive to sustain continuous-improvement. Therefore, to improve their effectiveness and hence meet some of these challenges, lean leaders incorporate the following principles in their personal leadership style.

1.    Self-Knowledge

True self-knowledge leads to humility. The mark of a good lean leader is the ability to reflect and acknowledge their own weaknesses, seek improvement, learn constantly; and to give and receive challenges.

Before a leader can effectively lead a team and seize control of an institution, he or she needs to ‘know' themselves first. Far too many people lack a true understanding of their own capabilities - most underestimate their weaknesses, while overestimating their talents. As a result, they often make bad decisions about what they can handle on their own and where they should seek assistance from others. The trappings of power, titles and privilege can also fool one into pride, or the false belief that one is more qualified, smarter, or more experienced than those they are leading.

To effectively improve their leadership, lean leaders use some method to gain insight into their performance other than personal perception. This may involve completing a proficiency test in their field, taking an IQ test, or requesting their team to fill out an anonymous survey about themselves. The idea is to get a wholesome and objective feedback about oneself, and though it's an uncomfortable process, it's always well worth the effort.

2.    Open to change

To efficiently and effectively drive change in a lean organization, a lean leader must be open to change. This basically means being open to new ideas including those which they do not like, support, or claim ownership to. They should also constantly challenge assumptions and ideas, especially their own; and need be open to being wrong as well as willing to mend their ways.

3.    Lead by Example

A lean leader sets the example for others to follow. He or she must be an excellent role model by following what they teach and ask of others.  For instance, if a leader expects team members to complete standard work and show proof of this, then he or she should also complete their leader standard work and provide proof of it for all to see.

To lead by example, a leader needs to act with highest integrity and be genuine. Also, their actions and decisions must at all times be aligned with and supportive of the organization's principles and mission. As a leader your actions should echo your words whenever possible – so practice what you preach.

4.    Be Respectful

Every single person in the organization deserves to be treated with respect and dignity. Lean leaders treat all people - especially their direct reports - as human beings who know how to think, come up with creative solutions, and solve problems. When employees and other stakeholders are treated with respect, only then can they be enabled to learn, think, and improve.

Leadership is about being a servant to the people who report to you, and supplying them with the resources they require to serve customers and abide by the company's principles. It's all about trusting, teaching, and allowing failures which impart important lessons.

5.    Seek personal improvement

A lean leader constantly strives to better themselves and their organization; and never assumes that they know everything. They are always developing themselves to achieve their highest potential, by pursuing the knowledge, skills and others tools which they lack, but are necessary for the accomplishment of their goals. Their fundamental belief is that everything (including themselves) can be made better and that people should constantly strive to achieve perfection, even though pure perfection can never truly be obtained. Basically, with lean leaders good enough' is never enough! They're also constantly challenging the "We have always done it that way" mindset in their organizations, by continuously teaching and encouraging their staff to better themselves, and participate in continuous improvement.

6.    Maintain the highest standard of integrity and honesty

Rather than hiding mistakes or "buying" time to figure out solutions, lean leaders openly admit any errors or failures, and seek immediate resolutions. In addition to this, they expect the same level of honesty from every single person who reports them, in a no-blame environment. Lean leaders also share the organization's data and information with the employees, necessary for improving their jobs or processes.

7.    Living the Gemba Style

A lean leader must go to the gemba as often as possible. They must be present on the job site on a regular basis, actively engaging with the people closest to the customer- rather than spending most of their time in the office or conference rooms. This, as a result, ensures that they are able to truly understand the real situation, allowing them to take effective actions to improve performance.

A true lean leader frequents the workplace both when things are going well, and when problem arise - otherwise, employees are less likely to communicate the real situation if their boss only shows up when problems occur.