Living the Lean Life - Lean is not Leadership

By Carrie Donovan posted 08-22-2014 11:29 AM

Now that we have been on our lean journey for about 18 months there is a concept that we are living called "lean is not leadership". 

As we have worked to reduce waste we have peeled back layers of messy, tangled processes and underneath have found leaders who have been buried for years.  Like mummies emerging from a tomb they are stumbling into the light of day groaning and blinking.  Some of them are relieved, happy to be free of their bonds and ready to embrace the new world.  Others are fearful of the light and the new world.  This is understandable, the new world is scary for our leaders.  In this new world the employees doing the work now say how to improve the process and the leaders stand by them providing the resources to implement changes. 

So what do I mean by "lean is not leadership"? Our leaders are now struggling with the new world in three ways:
  • Some are unable to use the leadership skills needed to problem solve resource changes. I call these the stumblers, fumbling and tripping
  • Some are unwilling to let go of a top down command and control approach to leadership and let employees decide how to improve the work.  I call these the groaners, complaining about any change.
  • Some are disengaged and want employees to do it all, come up with the change as well as decide how to provide resources and implement.  I call these the dusters, brushing off the dust of the grave but not moving out of it.

Lean tools are just that, tools.  Our leaders need to still manage operations and even more so in the new world where continuous improvement is constantly shifting the sand under their feet.  Teams of employees change the work to reach the goals set by leaders but can fall short implementing these changes without a leader.

Leaders must break down old ways of thinking, shake off the mummy wrappings and see processes from a patient and employee perspective.  This can be difficult; for example, a team recently changed the way phone calls are managed in a busy primary care clinic.  They designed a process using a flow cell with a scheduler and a triage nurse.  They then asked the clinic leaders to help them identify people to fill these roles using the time freed up on the nursing units not answering phone calls.  The leaders struggled to fill the role of scheduler because they could only see the people in the building who already knew scheduling not those who could be taught to schedule.  The leaders also lacked the skills of difficult conversations and conflict resolution needed to change the job expectations of their employees who needed to be moved to the new roles.

What do we do about this gap?  What is the root cause? When I ask "why?" five times I find the following root causes:
Lack of management skills
Priorities of the leaders
Understanding the use of sustainment tools such as process control boards, trend charts and pareto charts

What solutions can we experiment with to address these barriers?

We are trying some solutions now such as coaching leaders with gaps in their leaderhsip skills to enable them to improve or move; establishing standard work for leaders so as to help them prioritize and see this new way of doing business as not just one more thing to do but the tools to make their lives easier; and finally beefing up our visual management and process control boards as well as data tools so that anyone can, at a glance, see and understand if a process is working or not and what the barriers are that must be removed.

I don't know if this will free our mummies or just cause more groaning but we are brave explorers entering the dark musty tomb to rescue anyone willing to try! Stay tuned for the results of our experiments and more adventures in Living the Lean Life!