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Three key tips for Lean leaders

By B.G. Sandahl
Lean fellow, Results Washington

As we work to build a Lean culture in state government, leadership – of an agency, a team, and of self – is essential.

Throughout my career, I’ve worked for and with some great leaders. All of them shared one key characteristic: humility. Each and every one of these people seemed to be without ego. They always gave credit to others. They took the hit for their staff. They treated people with dignity and respect, including holding them accountable. And they tended to say “we,” rather than “I.”

Studying Lean in Results Washington’s fellowship program, I’ve repeatedly seen how humility is a key component of Lean leadership character and behavior.  In his book Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling,” author Edgar Schein defines this particular type of humility as one “which results from our being dependent from time to time on someone else in order to accomplish a task that we are committed to.” 

Wow. That’s precisely what I’d been lucky enough to experience: Leaders who were confident in asking for help. They didn’t profess to have all the answers. They listened to their teams and were careful to give them credit.

To engage those closest to the work in finding ways to improve it, Schein and others suggest, leaders should:

  • Ask “genuine questions,” taking a real interest in what the other person is saying.
  • Listen more (and take notes).
  • Do less “telling.” Be open to what employees are trying to share.

To succeed, a Lean workplace relies on those closest to the work – and to customers -- to continuously improve work processes by identifying and working to fix problems. Workers often have lots of ideas for improving a process, but may be reluctant to speak up.

Lean leaders value worker input and empower their line staff to try ideas, measure the results and continuously improve.

 B.G. Sandahl is a member of Results Washington’s Lean fellowship program.