Business & Careers

Lean Leadership: How To Loosen The Reins Without Losing Your Edge

BY Donna Sherriff

woman in hat sitting on couch with arms in the air

Your business is your baby – it makes sense that you'd want to keep a close watch. Have you considered that you might be holding on too tightly and needed to back off a little? By managing with a lean leadership approach, you might find that you can loosen the reins with confidence, and grow in ways you never expected.

Lean leadership focused organizations regularly boast industry-beating results year on year. These companies achieve these staggering performance results directly through strategic cultural development. This development is reliant on leadership techniques that focus on getting the best out of people.

Micromanagement and blame culture do not belong in a lean leader’s tool kit.

In lean organizations, the fundamental underlying principle of continuous improvement is coupled with an abiding respect for people. This creates a unique and powerful environment for the improvement, innovation, and performance of systems.

If you’ve been wondering how to get better results from your team members, consider using some of the following lean leadership techniques. It takes courage to loosen the reins in leadership but the results are well worth it.

1. Above all, hold respect for people.

The power of the human collective brain far exceeds what any one manager can achieve, no matter how talented. New team members bring new thoughts, ideas and perspectives from their previous experience that you, as the business owner or manager, don’t necessarily have. It would be irresponsible not to capitalize on this resource.

Holding respect for people means treating your employees with radical empathy; it means giving people the opportunity to own their work and their process. This also means not standing over their shoulders or turning down their ideas just because it’s unfamiliar to you or you think it won’t work. The last time I checked, I was not an expert in assembling electronic trays so I’m not about to tell my team members how to suck eggs. I am constantly amazed at the cool ideas they come up with and implement. These are improvements that only people who do the work day after day would ever think of. I’m not arrogant enough to ever assume I know as much as the collective brains of 70 people.

Respect for people also means letting people experiment with systems improvement, and most importantly, being okay with failure. 

2. Fail Fast, learn fast.

Thomas Edison once famously said when creating the light bulb ‘I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.’ Failure is the key to learning. Whether you want to admit it or not, we learn a lot more by failing than we do from succeeding.

If this concept makes you twitch then you should consider that lean companies know that rapid experimentation towards a target condition will ultimately leave them with a robust process that will perform consistently.

The faster you fail, the sooner you try a new solution. For this to work effectively, lean leaders need to be enthusiastic scientists. Lean leaders eagerly await the results of experiments and help team members find new ways to try again. Micromanagement just doesn’t work here. Frowning on or, worse, punishing failure immediately stifles the ability of team members to try new things. In addition, the organization then fails to utilize a vast potential expanse of knowledge and creativity.

If you do not encourage employees to try and support them when they fail they will stay in the safe zone trying to avoid failure instead. The result of this is that they will only give you ideas that they know will not fail and the progress of your business will be slowed down. What’s worse, is that you’ll never even know what you missed out on.

3. Communicate the Vision.

Lean leadership managers do not play their cards close to their chest. Fundamentally, if everyone in the company is not aware of the big picture plan, how can they help the company move towards it? In a lean company, the manager performs a function that is about communicating the vision and coaching and developing leaders. They also ensure that the company or department they manage is reaching strategic targets. If not, they drive problem-solving activities to correct the path of the business.

There is no status gained from ‘being a hero’. In a lean company, if you have to step in with the answers, you have not developed the problem-solving skills of your team properly. Communication in these organizations does not mean micromanagement and passing on orders. It means robust back-and-forth discussion about issues and the transfer back and forth of as much information as possible as often as possible.

4. Teach rather than tell.

Lean leaders are coaches. A lean leader does not waste their time rushing around the business telling everyone what to do. That would be highly inefficient. When an issue in an area is discovered, a lean manager will spend time with the leader of that area, asking how they intend to solve the problem.

Coaching someone through a problem-solving challenge develops their skills far more than implementing a solution that they have been given by someone else. The lean leadership manager will continue to check in with the area leader as they work their way through a problem, providing support and problem-solving advice but never answers. Sounds inefficient? That might be the case for the first five times, but after that, the area leader will be an effective and efficient problem-solving machine, tackling the most difficult problems. Ever wanted to clone yourself? This is how you do it.

5. Hire for open-mindedness and the ability to problem-solve.

This follows from the previous point: in order to coach people to problem solve, you have to have people with the right kind of mindset. When I hire for the company I work for, I am not looking for heroes, people whose CVs have pages of bullet points highlighting their achievements. I am looking for people who can demonstrate a strong sense of respect for others, who have enquiring minds and who are open to trying new ideas.

Most importantly, they must be humble enough to learn from others, especially people lower in the hierarchy. Lean leaders never stop learning. I would rather see a CV that details every failure they have made and what they learned from it. That’s my kind of leader.

6. Make your people visible.

In a previous article, I discuss the importance of making your people visible and this technique is a key trait of a lean leader. Again, in a lean company, the leader is just another function of the business supporting the people that actually do the value-added work.

It is important to make sure that the people in your company feel that they are visible to you. This can be done by celebrating improvements and failures. It can also be done by deeply understanding the current problems they face inside their process.

I’m not even talking here about incentive programs because in my experience they rarely work. What I’m suggesting is that you recognize your people for even the smallest improvements they make to their processes. A brief conversation related to a specific activity is far more effective than just saying good job or assuming that your people know how much you value them. Try saying I really like how you put X into place, which will make a real difference the next time we have to do Y.

Also, make sure you are never aloof from your team. If you are passing by, say good morning or just stop for a chat or a coffee. Your people need to know that you know who they are. They need to see that you see them for what they bring to the company. One lean manager I know has a two-foot rule; If he passes within two feet of someone, he speaks to them in a meaningful way, no matter what.

7. Lead from the front.

You may be the boss, but how you go about your daily routine will be noticed and emulated by everyone else. Lean leadership says you must demonstrate the behavior you want to see in your staff and not send conflicting messages.

If you promote a good life balance, then don’t work late in the office. Your team members won’t really believe that it’s okay for them to leave at 5pm to get home to the kids if you’re not doing the same thing. If you want your team members to keep everything clean and precise, be the cleanest most precise person in the place. If you want your team members to make lots of small improvements, show them that you are doing the same. In our company, no one flies business class and no one has their own carpark. One rule for all shows that you are as careful with the company’s money as you want them to be.

8. Reduce red tape.

One of the best ways to show great leadership is to make it as easy as possible for your team members to succeed. This means removing red tape as much as possible. For sure, every company needs good governance but if you need to approve the purchase of every box of pens you’ve either hired the wrong people or you might need to reassess your inner control freak. Set up sensible governance rules, make sure that everyone knows where the ‘ask the question’ line is and spend your time focusing on strategy.

To achieve the best results you can in your business, the key is to harness the massive potential of your people, not stifle it. Using the above philosophies will give you an edge over many of your competitors and a way of keeping up with those who already practice these techniques. 

Lean leadership takes courage. You have to trust your team to support your vision and be prepared to let them take you there. If you have the courage to loosen the reins, the results you see will be well worth the leap of faith required.


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