Leading Lean A-Z: F for be First

by Jamie Flinchbaugh, co-author, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean

[This is a continuation of a thread on Leading Lean topics from A-Z]

When visiting companies that feel better about their lean journey than they probably should, perhaps the most common thing I hear is “yes, we have management support. They are 100 percent behind us.” But behind is still behind. Leadership is about being out in front. An essential element of leadership is being first, exemplifying the change you want to see in your organization.

If you want to see people asking more questions, then you must start. It would be ironic to get people to ask more questions by telling them to do so. If you want to see people tackling waste, you can’t just encourage it, you must do it yourself. If you want to see people be more frugal and prudent in their spending, then you must give up some things yourself that might be great conveniences but cost money. If you aren’t willing to give up the convenience for the benefit of cost, then others won’t either.

As with most leadership practices, this isn’t only so for executives and managers. Even if you are an individual contributor, you most be first in the changes you want to see. Just as an example from my own learning, I was once trying to get the factory management within my factory to spend more time on the floor. Ironically, I would go to their office to tell them this. But until I started asking them to meet me on the floor for our discussion was I really acting as I was asking them to act.

A story told about the great Mahatma Gandhi illustrates this point. Gandhi would hold court for the many people who sought his advice and guidance. Most would travel many miles only to have to stand in line for hours. One mother was very concerned that her son was always eating sugar. She went with the boy to see Gandhi and stood in line for hours. When she got to see him, she said “I am concerned that my son is always eating sugar and I cannot get him to stop.” Gandhi told her to come back in 4 weeks.

She left, and return again 4 weeks later, again having to walk miles and stand in line for hours. When she finally was able to see him with her son, now 4 weeks later, she told him “my son will not stop eating sugar. You told me to come back here in 4 weeks, and so I have returned.”

Gandhi gestured for the boy to move closer to him. He put his hand on his head and looked him square in the eyes and stated “stop eating sugar.” The mother squawked “why did I have to wait four weeks, walk many miles, and stand in line for hours for that? You could have told him that then.” Gandhi stated “I was eating sugar, and I could not tell the boy not to until I was able to stop myself.”

It is very easy to preach, demand, declare, and suggest actions for others to talk without necessarily mastering them ourselves. But you don’t have to get to mastery, you just need to make a visible effort. If you want people to spend more time in the process observing, then do it yourself. It doesn’t even have to be fully focused observation.

A VP I was coaching would visit one of his sites and spend his whole day in meetings on the 2nd floor conference room. He wanted a better view. He set up a small workstation in a high traffic area of the plant where he could setup his laptop to work between meetings, and held all his meetings on the floor standing up. Not only did he learn something about the operation but so did everyone else.

A Plant Manager I was coaching wanted standard work to become a bigger part of the site’s culture and practice. He taught a class on it. He audited the standard work that was in place. He would regularly take a tangent in a meeting to preach the benefits of standard work. Yet no one saw this Plant Manager practicing standard work himself. That’s exactly what he started to do. He turned himself into a regular standard work billboard. He posted it in his office, carried it around with him, and made a big deal about communicating changes he was making to his standard work. Only at that point was he credible and effective in coaching and leading others to do the same.

Most of us prefer a crowd when we want to start something new. We want the support, the camaraderie, and the risk-reduction of feeling like together we’re more likely to figure it out. But sometimes we can’t wait for the crowd to be ready. We have to take the risk. We have to step out and lead, to go where the rest of our organization isn’t yet willing to lead. Someone, by definition, has to go first. Why not let it be you?

[You can also find posts from me at Evolving Excellence blog, or follow me on Twitter @flinchbaugh]

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Jamie Flinchbaugh is a lean advisor, speaker, and author. In addition to co-founding the Lean Learning Center, he has helped build nearly 20 companies as either a co-founder, board member, advisor, or angel investor. These companies range from high-performance motorcycles to SaaS tools for continuous improvement. He has advised over 300 companies around the world in lean transformation, including Intel, Harley-Davidson, Crayola, BMW, and Amazon. Jamie co-authored the popular book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean, and continues to share his experiences as a Contributing Editor forIndustryWeek and as a blogger at JamieFlinchbaugh.com. He holds degrees from Lehigh University, University of Michigan, and MIT, and continues to teach and mentor on campus. Jamie is best known for helping to transform how we think about lean from a tools-centric model to one based on principles and behaviors. His passion for lean transformation comes from seeking to unlock the great potential that people possess to build inspiring organizations.

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4 Comments on "Leading Lean A-Z: F for be First"

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  1. Phil says:

    Love the story on Ghandi! Good stuff . . .

  2. Jim Fernandez says:


  3. Alice says:

    Thanks for the advice and motivation, Jamie! This plays right into the "Resistance to Change" formula from your book The Hitchhiker's Guide to Lean and LLC training, doesn't it? F is the courage to take the First steps:

    H x V x F > R

    And H is the hatred of current reality, V is a clear vision of the ideal state, and R is the resistance to change. If H, V, or F is 0, then there won't be any change happening in our organizations, huh?

    On a daily basis it is all too easy to just think Lean applies to the manufacturing floor (or to the folks doing the work), not to me specifically – the leader. We forget that the most powerful impact we can make as leaders is to live it. Only then do we have that sincerity when we are leading our teams through difficult change.

  4. Jamie Flinchbaugh says:

    I believe it builds on this formula. As far as overcoming resistance, many different bold steps can be taken begin the journey. I believe the most effective are the ones that the leader takes themselves.

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