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Lean Leadership – The Toyota Way

In our latest ‘guest blog’, coach and ‘Lean’ expert Adrian Tighe provides us with an understanding of the Lean approach to leadership, based on his experience working for Toyota.

Many organisations have tried to implement ‘lean’ tools and techniques, from banks to manufacturing industries, food producers to health services, all with varying degrees of success. In many cases, the lean tools are implemented with initial success but without a change in management behaviour they slowly disappear.

Lean Leadership is what makes the difference.

‘Lean’ was the label coined by the team from M.I.T. that first studied Toyota. They recognised that Toyota did things differently, producing higher quality vehicles, in half the time with fewer people. More recently it has been recognised that Toyota are just as focused on how their Leaders should operate to ensure its success. They call it the “Toyota Way”.

The two pillars of the Toyota Way are ‘Continuous Improvement’ and ‘Respect for People’ and the balance between these two pillars is the key to successful Lean Leadership.

The first pillar, Continuous Improvement, is about challenging people and driving progress and improvement. Key elements of this pillar include daily monitoring of key performance indicators and focus on any short falls, and setting stretching targets and striving to move things forward.

Every process has a standard method and it’s the Leader’s role to regularly check the standards are being followed. This ensures the daily activities are done correctly and prevents the need for firefighting. The Leader can then focus on how it can be done better. This becomes a way of life.

‘Kaizen’ – Change for the better is expected from everyone. People are measured on how many ideas they implement.  The improvement may be as simple as moving something closer to make it easier to reach or it could be a major improvement to eliminate the need for a process.

As you can imagine, an organisation with a relentless drive to challenge and improvement can be a hard place to work. The second pillar of Respect for People is vital to make it a positive, motivating place to work. It focuses on how to treat people and develop teamwork.

The Leader’s role is to coach and develop their people and give them the responsibility and support to get things done. A lot of time and effort is put into reaching consensus and ensuring everyone’s buy-in before anything is implemented.

In summary the focus is on how things are done, not what is done. This makes sure the business and the people are led in the right way at all levels of the organisation.

If you sense that Lean Leadership could be an approach you want to give some time to, here are some practical ways you can develop your Lean Leadership skills:

  • Deal in facts not opinion – Collect data on problem processes, what, how many, when, who etc. Look for trends, then decide what needs to be done.
  • Confirm thing are done correctly – Pick one activity each day, drill down to confirm what is really happening. You might be surprised what you find.
  • Standardise a task- Pick a job and work with the team to identify the best way to do it, document it and train everyone to do it that way.
  • Continually develop your staff – As you work through these activities look to coach. Use each conversation as an opportunity and leave them with something to work on.



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