Changing Leadership Styles with Lean


As I've heard people say, Lean management isn't necessarily complicated – it's just very different.

In an organization that is undergoing a “Lean transformation,” leaders need to shift from being controlling to:

  • Coaching
  • Coordinating
  • Collaborating
  • Challenging
  • Caring

Are your leaders making this transition?

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Many leaders interested in Lean will say that they will be glad to make more effort in the list below or believe that they already do a great job.


    The reality is that most executives will not change and the first time they feel pressure, just like any addict, they will revert to their old habits and ignore the call to Lean leadership or worse yet, delegate the list to someone else. If coaching and developing subordinates was really happening, we should consistently see Lean expertise up and down the ranks in those organizations that have been at this for many years. Ask yourself a question, “How many front-line managers can do a presentation on implementation of Lean that would be meaningful to a manager of a similar service wanting to start lean?” … and how many years have we been doing this?

    Let’s not get discouraged, we just need to up our personal commitment.

    • Anonymous – do you think we are having more impact with front-line leaders or middle managers?

      I’m glad that John Toussaint, MD, a former CEO, is trying to influence other CEOs to see the light as he did, in changing his own leadership style. As John often says, he wasn’t always naturally a “lean leader” in terms of his personal style. Change is possible, but we probably aren’t seeing enough of it, like you said.

  2. Anonymous, I think you nailed it with your closing statement of “Let’s not get discouraged, we just need to up our personal commitment.” As lean practitioners it’s sometimes easy for us to have a pity party of how “our leadership doesn’t get it”. To that I would say that it’s up to us to help them get it. So if they are not moving at the pace we wish they would, maybe the approach we are taking is not effective. Maybe we’re trying to teach them with methods that work for us but do not resonate with them.

    As lean practitioners, we are trained problem-solvers. This issue of leadership “getting it” may be the most significant problem we will face in our lean journey.

    • Great point, Steve. One thing I’ll add is that, as problem solvers, we need to not blame the executives personally… we can look at the system and find root causes of their behavior — the education system, what has been reinforced to them during their careers, etc. Understanding some of that will help create the right countermeasures.

  3. I think it was Pascal Dennis on the Lean Edge blog who said we have to help the executives unlearn their MBA’s.

  4. Pretty interesting to read this note as todays Leaders are forgetting the basic concepts in the race to drive performance.

    Patricularly in the service industry I work with, I have seen seer lack of knowledge of leadership in Six sigma methodology resulting in driving lean via unexpectable methods and thereby losing the focus. And also as they fail to understand Lean methodology is nothing but team activity rather than individual activity when it comes to driving performance using these methods.


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