How CEOs Can Incorporate Lean Leadership Principles into Their Daily Work

Mark Dohnalek  |   November 22, 2017

In your day-to-day work as a CEO, how do you usually see yourself? Are you a supervisor? A teacher? A mentor?

If one of those last two words resonates with you, then chances are that you’ve incorporated lean leadership principles into your work style – perhaps without even realizing it.

The concept of lean leadership is an extension of lean manufacturing, which originated with Toyota’s famed Toyota Production System, or TPS. The TPS aimed to eliminate waste and streamline the production process, with a primary emphasis on value provided to the customer.

This has been translated into a style of leadership that emphasizes the goal of sustainably maximizing that customer value. This is not at all the same thing as maximizing profit.

While trying to maximize profit often means doing so at the expense of the workers making your product, maximizing value involves an inherent respect for all the people who touch the product on its journey from concept to production. It also means being committed to fostering continuous improvement in your organization.

These are the most essential characteristics of a lean leader. So how can you begin incorporating more of this leadership style into your own daily work?

Recognize that lean leadership often requires a shift in thinking.

The standard corporate culture is one of strict hierarchy: the entry-level workers are at the bottom, managers are in the middle, and we, the CEOs, are at the very top.

This kind of culture doesn’t always produce great results, however. It’s fairly difficult to lead effectively if we consider ourselves the most important person in the company.

Instead of thinking of ourselves as “the boss” or as a supervisor, we’ve got to embrace a shift. We must embrace true leadership, which is based on mutual respect, and the abilities to both inspire those who work for us, and help move the organization toward its broader future goals.

This kind of a shift takes practice. But it can certainly be accomplished.

Practice thinking of yourself as a mentor and a teacher. When communicating decisions, consider whether you’re communicating them as orders to be followed, or as ideas that you believe are in your organization’s best interests.

“Go see. Ask why. Show respect.” 

One of the biggest names in lean leadership thinking is Fujio Cho, the honorary chairman of Toyota. His definition of lean leadership is extremely succinct:

Go see.

Ask why.

Show respect.

There’s a lot of wisdom in those three small sentences. What he’s saying is that lean leaders must go out into their companies – to their frontline employees, their managers, and their team leaders – and observe how they are performing their work.

This practice is not a performance review, and it’s certainly not punitive. Rather, “going and seeing” in lean leadership terms means observing with an open mind so you can later reflect on the processes you observed and suggest improvements.

Asking why, of course, means simply that: ask your employees why they do a task the way they do it.

Again, you should not be looking for problems or shortcomings. On the contrary, lean leaders accept the fact that often, the best improvements come from the people who have their hands on your product day in and day out. When you ask why something is done the way it is, do so with the goal of gaining valuable information that you wouldn’t otherwise have.

Finally, as lean leaders, we must always show respect to our employees. Without them, our products wouldn’t get made, and we’d have nothing to do.

Incorporating lean leadership principles into our CEO roles doesn’t have to be difficult. If we can work on shifting our thinking, and fostering a culture based on respect, we’ll be well on our way.

For more, read “What Manufacturing CEOs Can Learn from Their Frontline Workforce.”