RESEARCH – Why do we struggle to identify the managerial behaviors that underpin different stages of a lean transformation? The author’s research looks into how we can be more situational in our leadership approach.
Words: Arnaldo Camuffo, President, Istituto Lean Management and Professor of Lean Management at Bocconi University - Milan, Italy
Three years ago, I visited a mid-size Italian company eight years into its lean journey. The CEO took me for a gemba walk. He provided me with the evidence of the ongoing lean program (a wealth of lean tools) and boasted about the number of kaizen weeks conducted annually as well as the money invested in consulting.
After our walk, the HR director joined us and made a presentation which included detailed statistics about training, the results of the annual employee engagement survey, and the monetary incentives associated to the company’s suggestions system. The last three slides, the most important in the presentation according to the HR director, related to the company’s leadership model. This was a “lean leadership” model, used to operate a state-of-the-art performance management system upon which decisions on hiring, promotions and development programs were based.
The lean leadership model included six leadership behaviors. Interestingly, three of these behaviors were three “classics” of lean practice: go see, ask why, and show respect. This looked good on paper, but then I asked the HR director a somehow naïve question: “How did you identify these behaviors and how did you decide they were the right ones?”
Taken aback by my question, he answered: “This islean leadership.” He went on to explain that the behaviors included in their model are commonly quoted by consultants and books as thelean leadership behaviors. Not to mention that “they were the Toyota Way leadership behaviors”. I was surprised by the answer and, right after the visit, I started to investigate whether this copy-and-paste approach was an isolated case or a widespread practice.
I soon found out that, all too often, organizations adopting lean thinking often implement lean leadership models borrowing existing off-the-shelf models from elsewhere (Toyota? Danaher? Virginia Mason Medical Center?). Sometimes, they cherry-pick behaviors from different models without really asking why they are doing it. I also realized that, in some cases, lean companies take another, equally dangerous shortcut – assuming (wrongly) that lean leadership is equivalent to other popular leadership models and their corresponding traits, such as transformational leadership, servant leadership, results-based leadership or even emotional intelligence.
I then reviewed the relevant literature and found that lean leadership studies typically offer insights into lean management behaviors that are case-based (thus hard to generalize) and rely on anecdotal evidence. They offer neither quantitative empirical data nor replicable research protocols or appropriate metrics. The former aspect is partly due to the fact that many of these studies are conducted by and aimed for practitioners, as well as to the fact that it is difficult to integrate lean operations literature into leadership and management literature.
All of this helps to explain why lean management behaviors are often over-sold, but under-engineered in lean transformations, so that lean systems tend to be prevalently focused on tools.
In general, I believe that we are witnessing a sort of “lean leadership hypocrisy” (in the word’s original meaning, coming from ancient Greek, of being unable to make judgements) both in research and in practice. Scholars and practitioners seem reluctant or unable to rigorously identify what set of leadership behaviors better support a lean transformation and under which circumstances.
In a bid to contribute to the addressing of this gap, I have set up a large-scale field study aimed at: a) identifying and empirically validating a repertoire of management behaviors associated with the adoption of lean systems (using Jim Womack’s repertoire proposed in LEI’s book Gemba Walks); and b) showing that different subsets of such behaviors differentiate lean systems at different stages of maturity and in different settings. Using quantitative and qualitative methods, the study analyzes 26 cases of lean transformations.
I find that: 1)there is a general repertoire of management behaviors that support lean implementations and complement the adoption of lean practices; 2) different subsets of these behaviors are associated with different stages of lean maturity, as well as company characteristics. For example, more successful transformations are characterized by leaders who make decisions based on a thorough understanding of facts, directly at the point of value creation, tapping into the local knowledge of the employees involved in the operations. They also interpret their role as teachers/instructors and coaches, taking direct responsibility for people’s capability development and co-practicing with subordinates specific learning routines. At the same time, not all behaviors have the same importance.
The practical implications of the study are straightforward:
Overall, thestudy provides practical guidance for the implementation of a lean system, suggesting a set of management behaviors within which firms can identify and validate specific, appropriate subsets of behaviors aligned with the company strategy, culture, size, environment, bundle of lean operation practices adopted, and maturity stage of lean adoption.
Arnaldo Camuffo is President of the Istituto Lean Management in Italy. He also teaches Lean Management at Milan's Bocconi University.