Self-development: New leadership abilities are vital for Lean Leaders

by Mascha Westen-Reinders Folmer, Reinders Folmer Consultancy, 12 March, 2021

In blog #3, I talked about Lean leadership and its 5 main components:

  • Improvement culture: Striving for perfection. Failure in order to improve and learn
  • Self-development: Lean leaders lead by example. New leadership abilities are vital
  • Employee development: Long-term education of employees. Continuous learning
  • Gemba: Shop floor management. First-hand knowledge as a basis for decision making
  • Hoshin Kanri: Customer focus. Aligned goals on all levels

Today I will elaborate on Self-development for Lean leaders. What abilities do they need, including leading by example.


The evolution of leadership according to the Lean Enterprise Institute

What abilities does a Lean Leader possess?

There are still organisations that have a hierarchical leadership style. Typically recognised by a supervisor or manager sitting in his office steering the process based on information in an Excel sheet, that he can get on his PC and telling people what to do. In Japan, Toyota has proven that a different style of leadership gets much more result. In the Western world we call what they have been doing for the past 65 years or so, Lean Leadership. So what do Lean leaders have in common? They are able to switch between 6 different roles:

1. The initiator role:

They take the initiative for improvements, mobilise commitment by communicating with all involved, and act on their plans. They are neither risk averse, nor reckless. They see Lean as a journey that is there to stay and keep Lean continuous improvement going. They are focussed on the long-term, make decisions accordingly and they are persistent and patient.

2. The lead-by-example role:

They live the 5 Lean principles every day:

  • They know the customers and what value they expect from their organisation. The customer is the beginning and end of everything, and thus focus of all processes, improvements and decisions. This includes a continuous focus on problem solving and improving the quality of products and processes.
  • They improve the processes (value stream) to eliminate all non value added activities, for more value creation for the customers. More focus on preventing problems before they happen, than repairing them afterwards.
  • By improving the processes they create flow, so the products and services can move through the process without any blockages. They focus on managing and improving bottlenecks.
  • With their customer focus, they also focus on creating a pull system (only produce based on customer order), so inventory can be reduced to a minimum.
  • The are relentlessly in pursuit of perfection. Always encouraging and enabling their employees to find new small improvement opportunities each day.

3. The observer role:

They are frequently seen on the workfloor, or Gemba as they call it in Japan. Here they talk to the employees with considerable interest. They truly want to understand what happens in the processes, so improvements can be initiated. They are in frequent contact with their customers for relationship building, but most of all, to gather information for further improvement of the processes.

4. The teacher role:

Being process oriented, they aid their empoyees to learn from things that went wrong and to flag mistakes instead of brushing them under the carpet. Their first question will be: “where did it go wrong?”, instead of “who did something wrong?” The focus is on learning and finding process improvement opportunities.

5. The student role:

They do not assume they know it all (to ASSUME is to make an ASS of U and ME). They go fact finding and value the knowledge and experience of all employees who work in the processes on a daily basis. They are looking for something new to learn every day.

6. The support role:

They are the ones who clear the blockages employees experience, when improving their processes. They support their employees to grow and achieve the best they can and to look for small improvements they can do themselves on a daily basis. This is very similar to “servant leadership.”



To become a Lean leader, you have to understand the Lean principles, you have to apply them in everything you do, you value and guide your employees in continuous improvement and you are consistant and patient. Do you have it in you to become a Lean leader?

How far along are you in your process of becoming a Lean leader? If you don’t know where to start, because it looks like a lot to change, first determine where you want to go: how do you see yourself as a Lean leader. Then make a plan to get there. Lean continuous improvement is all about tiny steps every day, so first pick the role closest to you and try to turn that into a Lean version. Once you take the first step, the rest will be easier.

Enjoy your growth!

If you are interested in continuous improvement, I recommend reading this book about applying it in your every day life:

1% better every day

Are you interested, but not sure how to do this, or do you have any questions? Feel free to contact me for more information.