25 Key Leader Behaviors that Encourage Continuous Improvement


greg jacobson mark graban kainexusLast Wednesday, Dr. Greg Jacobson and I gave a webinar for Gemba Academy titled Leadership Behaviors that Create a Culture of Continuous Improvement.

You can view the recording via GembaAcademy.com.

Greg and I came up with a list of 25 leader behaviors that are important for CEOs and senior leaders, middle managers, and front-line supervisors alike. There are probably more than 25, but this was our starting point. Leave a comment if you have one to add to the list or if you have a story about one of these key behaviors.

25 Leadership Behaviors

  1. State your belief in Kaizen
  2. Explain why Kaizen is important
  3. Empower, but be a servant leader
  4. Participate in Kaizen yourself
  5. Ask for Kaizen ideas (and opportunities)
  6. Don't require everything to be an event or a project
  7. Emphasize small ideas
  8. Ask for more than just cost savings
  9. Look at the process instead of blaming people
  10. Keep asking for Kaizen
  11. Don't hide ideas (be transparent)
  12. Quickly respond to every idea
  13. Work to find something to implement
  14. Turn “bad ideas” into better ideas
  15. Coach, but don't nitpick
  16. Help people see the bigger picture (don't suboptimize)
  17. Turn complaints into ideas
  18. Help create time for people to take action
  19. Help share and spread ideas
  20. Don't forget the “SA” in PDSA
  21. Don't overdo the “P” in PDSA
  22. Be prepared to fail (and learn from failure)
  23. Be careful with rewards and quotas
  24. Give people recognition for ideas (effort, not just results)
  25. Compile the results and celebrate them

Our slides:


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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. Strong list!

    I’d suggest tweaking #24 to “Recognize people for their efforts, ideas, participation and results” or just plain “Recognize people.”

    The brain science shows that acknowledging people for any actions in the right direction help them stay focused. The acknowledgement also puts them in a quieter, more positive brain state. See “Give an ‘A’ for Effort”–which is my latest blog post.

    It’s also important for leaders to role model. However, your list is already long and robust so it may not be worth adding. If the list is too long, it may be too overwhelming.

    • Liz – Yes, that’s the intent behind the list… something got lost in making the list items really brief.

      A list of 25 is probably already overwhelming. We don’t expect people to remember all 25, of course… I had a good suggestion to group them up into a list of 4 or 5 categories perhaps, or max 7, that people could actually remember.

      But I think the list did the job for the webinar, at least.

  2. Skills vs behaviors vs principles. We need to paint a complete picture.

    For example: Principle: I respect people

    Behavior: I spend regular time each day (week) developing the skills and abilities of subordinates

    Skill: I know how to coach for increased performance The Shingo Prize people talk about this a lot.

    My angle on this is that for the typical CEO, what are the vital few skills and behaviors needed to be a successful Lean leader? As you well know, many healthcare organizations doing Lean have delegates running a Lean “program” and after a good start reach a roadblock because the CEO, although supportive, can’t give up certain things like board and community relations, corporate meetings, and the like. So for folks like this, what are the minimum behaviors and skills needed to sustain a successful Lean transformation?

  3. hi Mark,

    Its good to see lots of “Kaizen” words. Standardization is the foundation needed for Kaizen. We need to have some points to make the list almost complete..

  4. A great presentation and a very full list I will use with my leadership team. One addition, and probably woven in the subtext of your presentation, “servant leadership”.

  5. Great list Mark! I’m going to use it as a pre-flight checklist. I may be late in the game commenting on this post, but never too late I suppose.

    On #23 I’m in the midst of rolling out a CI suggestion system here. I totally agree with your opinion on reward systems and the potential for many issues to crop up as identified in your webinar with Greg.

    I have decided to go with a reward system. The suggestion system designed here is around these pillars :

    1) The suggestion creator will be a part of the implementation team
    2) PDSA overview will be conducted with the implementation team prior to implementation (and during)
    3) Rewards will be honoured on a monthly basis. All suggestion creator’s will be entered into a draw only after idea is successfully implemented with metrics and monitoring in place

    It is the hopes with these 3 pillars that the suggestion system will help counter the negative aspects of a reward system.


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