Leading Change

The Three Deliberate Practices of Lean Leaders

The Practice of Purpose

Decades ago W. Edwards Deming’s first principle of management was, “Create constancy of purpose for improving products and services”. In the 21st century purpose has been hijacked by the drive for profit. However slowly a renewed emphasis on purpose is coming back to the fore in big enterprises. KPMG Consulting advises that in terms of employee motivation, “Meaning and purpose is a fallow asset. According to their correlations, employees who felt they were making a meaningful impact were 42% more likely to rate a company as a great place to work.[1] Problem is, Gallup found in a 2013 survey that only 25 % of employees felt a connection to their company’s mission.

How can a leader clarify his or her purpose in a work situation? Author and consultant Kiyo Suzaki recommends a “so what” inquiry into finding a purpose. A leader is to ask repeatedly of any work activity “so what”, thereby drilling down to locate a meaning for the effort. It might resemble the following chain of questions one might ask silently inside.

  • ·      Why am I doing this task? Because my boss asked me to do it.
  • ·      So what?  If the task is done well it will be progress in an important project.
  • ·      So what? The project is important to a key customer who is important to our business.
  • ·      So what? I find meaning in our business mission to deliver value to our customers.

As new situations arise in a staff meeting, problem solving session, design review or water- cooler conversation, a leader needs to find a goal or target condition that fits her purpose and vision, one that leads to progress. Obviously if the “so what” questions short circuits to an “I don’t know” one should seek more information, talk to the boss or understand customer requirements. Once a leader has found a business purpose, how does he or she proceed?


[1] Wall Street Journal, Feb. 25, 2015, p. B


The Practice of Coaching

Coaching is a word with many meanings including teaching, executive coaching, life coaching, career development, process improvement and counseling employees to remediate their poor performance. In recent years, Western experts have experienced, decoded and described Toyota-style coaching tools and protocols.[1] Websites to learn more about coaching continuous improvement are Toyota Kata.com; One System, One Voice.com; and LEI.org.

Coaching Process Improvement

These days coaching process improvements day in and day out is the preferred approach to implement lean production. Consider the analogy with a personal trainer at a gym or in a weight room. Would it ever be appropriate for the personal trainer to lift the weights for you? Of course not. Similarly, implementing lean production improvements must be led by employees doing the work. It can’t be mandated by experts. In order for functional leaders to learn to coach continuous improvement the company must hire a sensei, a master teacher. Here’s an example

Autoliv Abandons Re-Engineering and Hires a Sensei

“We brought in Mr. Harada from Toyota and he spent 2-3 years with us. Mr. Harada came in and turned on the light. Sometimes it was kind of boring listening to him talk about the basics – discipline and standards over and over. Now I understand that every year we have to refresh the foundation, leaders must “go and see”, explain again why we are operating in a lean way and using the Socratic method to ask lots of questions and inquire for peoples’ reflections on “how we are doing?” 

A Lean Coach Speaks

"Lean is a two-pronged approach, respect for people and improve with work processes. Most American companies are trying to make more money, but lean doesn’t solve that problem. Command and control tries to do that. If you shove a lean process into a command management culture, it’s like oil and water mixed and it makes no sense. The latter is a fear-based means to making money. The lean process requires the value of “respect for humanity” which includes employees, customers and me personally because I want to be successful too. I want to lead change in a way that we all gain." 

Three contemporary approaches to lean coaching are:

A3 Coaching

The A3 process aims at both managing work and developing people The A3 is a single sheet for problem solving that provides a structure of a, “current situation or problem statement” followed by logical steps all the way through a plan for implementing a solution.  It’s been well-described in the book Managing to Learn, by John Shook. Here’s an A3 coach’s description of it.

An A3 Coach Speaks

"The A3 puts together a logical thought process and mandates the collaboration of the key players. It helps develop the Esprit de corps you need to be successful. In one example product design engineers came together for a value stream mapping workshop initially. The workshop was four days and thee team spent two weeks together beginning the first series of A3s. Using that to structure their collective work the team developed commitment to each other over the two weeks. Then later back home they would talk to someone on the phone they’ll remember the evening you went out to dinner and he told you about his family. This stays with you and you are committed and they will put the team in front of themselve

Author John Shook describes the impact of the A3 as a developmental process: “The impact of mentoring can have a much deeper, even a meditative impact. I saw and experienced it having great impact. The A3 learning process evokes what the Buddhists call ‘beginner’s mind.’”[1]

Customer-Back Coaching

Prime Bank is a financial enterprise with over 40,000 employees. Several years ago, they hired a sensei to coach top and middle bank managers on Toyota style coaching for improving bank processes. The sensei later described what happens when the enterprise grew: “When fast growth happens as company professional managers come in and the silos begin optimizing for each individual department. They think in terms of cost management and lose sight of delivery of value for customers

A Customer-Back Coach speaks:

“We are building a universal approach to coach “here and now” problem solving with the same methodology for all executives in the bank. What is interesting is that they all don’t see the end consumer, because their back-office functions are one step removed. The customer is much more demanding now and lost days in process at a branch you can’t say, “It’s ok”, because they are critical to competition. Unless the executives work with you face to face in coaching, they are going to see things the same way.”


 The Improvement Kata and Coaching Kata

Mike Rother and his colleagues observed and interview managers in Toyota to understand the unseen managerial routines and thinking that lie behind Toyota's success with continuous improvement. They found that, “What was being worked on differs from area to area and level to level, but the thinking pattern is the same.” They codified the steps and dubbed it a “kata”, meaning “form” of continuous improvement. They published the coaching and improvement methods or kata in the workplace practiced over and over the way that repetitive moves are used in the martial arts[1] The kata approach uses “five questions” as the standard way to structure coaching to a target condition with either a process metric or a qualitative description. Then the coach guides with discussion with what are called the “five questions”:

1.     What is the target condition?

2.     What are the actual conditions now?

3.     What obstacles do you think are preventing you from reaching the target condition?

4.     Which one are you addressing now?

5.     What is the next step or next experiment? What do you expect? When can we go and see what we have learned?

The Practice of Presence

Presence is an unconditioned awareness, a lucid mind unburdened by thoughts, bias or beliefs. The challenge to being present is that our evolving brain is stuck in our caveman days. It’s conditioned to scan the immediate environment for threats and opportunities and then either react or make a plan to survive and thrive. How can our instinctive, reactive mind be reprogrammed for modern challenges? In the martial arts, a ‘kata” is a practice of a series of moves intended to ingrain automatic reflexes to defend or attack in battle. What is way of being present?

The Presence Kata

Meditation provides the template for the Presence Kata. It has a way to regain presence again after a disruptive outside event or loosing awareness to one’s own inner thoughts and emotions. The kata begins by establishing a rhythmic activity such as disciplined breathing, chanting, movements or in dialogue with another person. Mindfulness attends to “what is” without bias. Next awareness tracks movement of one’s thought and brings a focus back to mindfulness again and again. Once mindful and aware one diminishes the self and falls into Zen mind. 

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