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February 05, 2019 Tuesday 11:37:38 AM IST

Lean is Dutiful

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Lean thinking is essentially transforming the way organizations function. The Lean philosophies of continuous improvement, respect for individuals, and a persistent focus on providing customer value are forcing teams and firms to reconsider the practices that might have directed them for decades. A novel, transformative tactic to working necessitates a transformation in leadership as well. For Lean to be truly effective, it needs operative Lean management — to champion Lean ideologies, offer direction, and ensure that Lean is being used to adjust the entire organizational system for value delivery. Practising Lean management principles demands a shift in mindset -- from that of a manager to that of an educator and coach. Lean leaders must lead quietly, by example, guaranteeing that Lean principles are being applied with the right goal in mind which is to sustainably maximize the delivery of value to the customer.

Obsessive customer focus

In Lean philosophy, customer is considered as the beginning and end of everything. Without an extreme focus on the customer and an understanding of what they value, a leader will not know where to concentrate their developmental efforts and may actually end up unintentionally carving out value from the firm. Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, is acknowledged by many as one of the world’s top-rated CEOs, with an unrelenting focus on creativity and customer experience. When Schultz decided to return to Starbucks as CEO, one thing he instantaneously worked to change was the breakfast sandwiches. The way they were cooked caused cheese to spill over into the oven and ultimately the smell of burnt cheese would overhaul the smell of coffee. While it was undoubtedly a problem, the greater issue was that there were a cluster of little things eating away at the core. That too got due attention in the management process. The organization, with a unique customer experience, steadily got the little details right.

Champion of simplicity


Majority of the organizational procedures and structures are much too intricate and the attraction of efficiencies through multifarious systems sometimes makes matters worse. One important quality of an effective lean leaders is their capability to impart a simple, clear vision for the future. Think of some of the most treasured companies in the world at the zenith of their success, and reflect on the simplicity of their stories.   Nokia focused on ‘connecting people’; Apple highlighted ‘computers for the rest of us’; IKEA promised about ‘making people’s lives easier’; Nike was inspiring us to ‘just do it’ and Coca-Cola was assuring us ‘the real thing’. One of the much-loved stories of branding simplicity is the ‘Intel Inside’ story.  Most individuals who use a computer are clueless about how a microprocessor functions, what its exact role is, or what would make one brand superior to another.  Yet, in the 1990s, Intel’s ‘Intel Inside’ promotional drive made it and its Pentium processor household names.  Nowadays, many customers do know that they want a computer with an Intel inside.  The organization succeeded in creating a simple and graceful brand story around a product that nobody sees, and that only engineers and technologists truly comprehend.

Living the Gemba style

Gemba is used by Japanese to signify ‘workplace’ or a place ‘where value is created’. Leaders should spend maximum time at the real touch points affecting the customer and the employees. Only then will they truly recognise the actual situation so that they can take correct actions to enhance performance. Empathy is a key characteristic displayed by Lean leaders. Indra Nooyi, who led PepsiCo, is renowned for her compassionate approach and leading with her people in mind. Each year, Nooyi takes time to draft over 500 hand written letters to the parents of her senior executives, conveying her gratefulness and thanking them for the gift of their child to PepsiCo. Bearing in mind the fact that 70% of employees agree they would work harder if they were more appreciated, this genuine act of service would probably pay off for PepsiCo.

Crisis management


Since the foremost role of the Lean leader is to be a coach and a people developer, they must fundamentally lead by example. Leading by example is impossible without being honest and acting with high accountability. Widespread fear rumbled across the masses in 1982, when 7 individuals were killed after consuming doses of Extra-Strength Tylenol, a medicine used to treat pain and fever, that had traces of cyanide. Once public started enquiring the safety of the product, Johnson & Johnson CEO James E. Burke declared that the firm would stop selling over-the-counter products in capsules, which can be easily damaged. The company withdrew more than 33 million bottles of Tylenol from store shelves, at a significant cost to the organization. Apart from that, Burke showed the courage to offer the public an unequivocal apology as soon as news of the deaths appeared. When a journalist asked if he was sorry that the firm had not acted sooner, Burke replied, “Yes, indeed I am.” As a result of his actions, Burke created a reputation for strong, decisive leadership in the face of adversity. Fortune magazine entitled him as one of history’s 10 greatest CEOs and the Tylenol case has been quoted in numerous studies as an example of outstanding crisis management.

In a Lean enterprise, Lean Leadership is implemented at all levels. It is not a ‘management thing’; it must be adopted by everyone. These companies are built upon the idea of incessant improvement. Changes occur in all procedures and If an organization wishes to change, it needs the skill of top leadership to suitably execute the changes. In addition, once Lean Leadership is imparted and properly delegated, the ‘leadership footprint’ in the organization is enhanced.  It is robust, it is more evident and it is also more prevalent. Subsequently, when there are personnel changes anywhere, there is more leadership momentum within the firm. This action means a company is less likely to lose all its gains solely because one charismatic leader just happens to leave.


Dr. Manu Melwin Joy

The writer is an Assistant Professor at School of Management Studies, CUSAT

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