Over the last few years a lot has been written about Lean leadership. For instance about what the differences would be between Lean and traditional leadership. And what the characteristics are of a Lean leader. One of the aspects often missing, I feel, is “discipline”. I have always told my managers that they weren’t paid more because they would supposedly be more intelligent or because they studied for a longer period of time, but because I expected them to be the most disciplined in respecting standards. As without the manager’s respect – also interestingly described in the “broken windows” theory – the organization as a whole will flout its own rules.
The “broken windows” theory, proposed in 1982 by J.Q. Wilson and G.L. Kelling suggests that when urban areas are maintained in a well-ordered condition (no graffiti, rubbish or, for instance, broken windows, hence the name), further escalation into more serious crime may be prevented.
2008, an interesting experiment was conducted by Kees Keizer and his colleagues from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. The experiment was set in an alley in the city center. In the first situation, the alley was covered in graffiti. In the second, the walls were clean without graffiti. In both cases, advertising flyers were attached to the handlebars of the bicycles parked in the alley. However, in the first situation, about two-thirds of the people threw the flyer on the ground whereas in the situation where the alley was clean, this was only about one third.
The thesis, therefore, is to tackle problems as soon as they arise, when they are still small and before they grow into problems that are far more difficult to solve. Accepting small problems is interpreted as a sign of disinterest and a lack of investment in the areas in which the people of a community have to live (and work) and thus in the people as such. Or put even stronger: as a lack of respect for the people. In brief, bad begets worse.
In my opinion, the “broken windows” theory also contains cues for Lean leadership. When leaders do not pay attention to the respect of standards and react immediately and adequately to any deviations from the standard, they should also not be surprised when the workplace tends to spiral into chaos over time. As Hiroyuki Hirano also wrote: “managers who do not accept responsibility for managing standard are not entitled to complain if their workers feel the same.” Example surely is better than precept is the proverb that comes to mind.
This is often how I see well-intended 5S initiatives come to a grinding halt. And how energetically started stand-up meetings to address small problems die a slow death due to a lack of respect for timing, presence and up-to-date data. Managers walk by and don’t seem to take note, or mind. So why would their teams? Without the discipline to note deviations from standard and to react adequately to them, the foundation of continual improvement ceases to exist. Because when we don’t note or mind deviations, we stop asking questions as to why these deviations arise. And if we don’t ask these questions, how do we get to learn? And when deviate without good reason, why would we be surprised when performance turns out to be worse than expected? And if we deviate with good reason, how do we learn about potentially even better ways? And if we don’t care, why do we expect others to think it’s important?
The Lean Manager
Managers at every level of the organization need to be very observant of deviations from standard. And they need to be disciplined in reacting adequately and consistently to these observed variances. And that is difficult. It means all managers at all levels need to understand the true reasons for and purposes of having standards, and their importance. And it often implies an unprecedented discipline in executing their role. Something many seem to struggle with. Managers often even seem to collaborate more with their peers than they actually work with and support their team on the gemba. In an organization that is striving to become Lean, this has to change.
The above means that Lean managers are focused on jointly defining standards with their teams and visualizing these. And yes, this also is a lot more than the apparently very popular performance board I see in so many teams, thinking that they’re now Lean.
Furthermore, the Lean manager needs to react correctly. Spotting deviations and immediately raising a correcting finger at a team member thereby is not the way forward. But asking the question and together with the team investigating – in all openness and with mutual respect – why the deviation was observed, is. I still tend to see a lot of improvement potential in understanding standards, visualizing them, being attentive as well as in adequately reacting to spotted variances…