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Lean Leadership – Managers as a Success Factor

How often have you experienced unsuccessful attempts to introduce Lean Management in a company? What were the reasons for the failure? In our day-to-day project work, we also repeatedly observe companies that have not been able to implement "Lean" in a sustainable manner - and others that have been successful with it for years. What makes the difference between success and failure? The reasons for failure or successful implementation are many, and success factors for achievement are numerous. In the second part of our Lean Management series, we would like to focus on one, from our experience, very important and often neglected point: The managers in a company.


How much leadership is there actually in "leader"?

Leaders have numerous management tasks: They have to set goals, inform, plan, delegate, decide, promote, motivate, and control. How much time do you as a manager or does your manager actively spend on these management tasks? And how much time with meetings, with your own day-to-day business and with short-term "fire-fighting" to solve problems? So how much leadership is there in "leader"? You can already guess: usually quite a little.

Toyota, however, attaches great importance to leadership and thus to the quality of its managers. Lean Leadership means leadership "the Toyota Way". Toyota itself describes the so-called Toyota Way with the two core elements of mutual respect and the will to optimize. J. K. Liker describes it using 14 principles on the four topics of philosophy, process, people and partners, and problem solving.


What is Lean Leadership?

In the sense of the Toyota Way, managers have various elementary tasks:

  • They should practically exemplify the spirit of the Toyota Way and ensure that employees internalize it.
  • They are largely responsible for ensuring that employees develop optimally.
  • To this end, they must provide active personnel development.
  • They must ensure that their employees master the methods of the TPS (Toyota Production System).
  • They are not only CIP (continuous improvement process) experts, but also change managers.

A key aspect of these tasks is on-site leadership. This means that the manager is present and available at the scene of the action - on the shop floor, in the office, in the field, etc. - so that there is a constant flow of information and communication at eye level. The manager becomes a coach who supports and leads his team as his main task. The following applies here: 

  • A good coach must light a fire, convince mentally and inspire!
  • The coach is not allowed on the playing field!
  • The coach is a coach and not a player!

This means that the leader in the CIP is no longer the problem solver himself, but enables his employees to solve problems themselves in a sustainable way. They work in the PDCA cycle (Plan - Do - Check - Act) and find solutions to their problems, while the coach sets goals, decides, promotes, motivates and controls, i.e. concentrates on the leadership tasks.

This also includes a corresponding basic attitude on the part of the managers (coaches). In addition to respect and appreciation for the employees, a coach should also be self-reflective and stand behind his team. A good coach is authentic and stands by what he says. Successes are celebrated, failures are examined, and then a new attempt is made together. A coach doesn't look for someone to blame and can separate person from thing. Employees are encouraged and challenged. Leadership is always understood as a service to the employee.


Why is lean leadership so crucial to success?

Through this basic attitude and the consistent fulfillment of leadership tasks, lean leadership has many positive effects. On the one hand, it promotes employee motivation and increases satisfaction: the direct encounter on site creates appreciation, the manager becomes close and the team concept is promoted. The physical proximity also creates a mental closeness, the basis for relationships of trust. A working environment is created in which employees feel comfortable and enjoy working.

The direct exchange also improves the professional interlocking, whereby cost, deadline and quality targets can be better achieved. Processes become more stable through sustainable and structured problem solving, and waste is minimized.

For the sustainable implementation of lean management, lean leadership is one of two central elements, and one cannot function without the other. One is the technical, organizational side, in which the focus is on know-how, methods, their strict implementation and goals. However, to be successful with it, management change is also required, so the focus is also on soft skills and leadership.

The goal of lean management is to create a CIP culture. This can only be achieved by winning over the breadth of the workforce. The implementation must be strongly supported from below; without the knowledge and commitment of the operational employees, an introduction will neither be successful nor sustainable. Equally critical to success, however, is top-down implementation: The team must be guided through the change. Goals must be set, demanded and monitored. Lean must be exemplified by managers. Only if "top and bottom", "technical and thinking/behavioral" work equally, a sustainable implementation is possible.

The prerequisite for this are trained managers who are aware of their leadership role. Just as the conditions must be created for team members to fulfill their duties within the framework of lean management, the framework conditions must also be created for managers and they must be supported. Leadership development (train the trainer) is an explicit part of Lean Management respectively Lean Leadership and must not be neglected.


Curious now? Be on the lookout for our next article on Lean Management, in which we will deal with the implementation of Lean Management and take a look at what other success factors there are for the introduction of Lean in addition to good leadership.


Shari Widmann
Consultant I IMIG Germany

For further information please contact us either by mail: or by phone: +49 7152 928 460.

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