Lead With Lean by Michael Ballé


Michael is a relentless researcher on the topic of Lean. Like other main influencers of this blog, such as Scott Berkun, or Jason Fried & David Heinemier Hansson, his work is priceless in that Michael keeps on going from abstract thinking (reading, studying) to concrete thinking (on the shop floor, with executives, to coach them on their strategy and their everyday problems) and back to abstract thinking (writing) : his thoughts and ideas are always validated or inspired by the reality of every day work.

Lead With Lean is a book which brings together many articles published during the last 5 years, mostly on Planet Lean. Reading these articles separately are enlightening ; reading them together, thanks to the great work by talkative and super smart Roberto Priolo (Planet Lean Chief Editor) who edited the book, is telling in that it shows the amazing strength of Michael thinking on the topic.

All these articles are like practices, a beau geste of describing in many different contexts and from many different perspectives what Lean and Lean Leadership are and why learning from them is so important today. These can also be seen as handles, practical ways of grasping some tough concepts : a very instructive book indeed.

Michael Interview on this book to be published soon … watch this space.

Developing Kaizen spirit in every employee

What is lean ? This is the question Michael makes a great job in answering in almost each article. It can be seen as “a way to increase customer value by decreasing waste caused to the customer by our own processes (….) a business strategy based on learning how to improve performance rather than manage the numbers, and it cannot be done to people, it can only succeed with people.”

What I eventually understood reading this book is that Lean is a strategy because it aims at developing a kaizen spirit in every employee. This is where it is so different to other strategies : the role of executives and managers is to achieve this : develop a continuous improvement mind in each and every employees. This is showing respect to employees. The paradox as Michael quote Akio Toyoda, current Toyota CEO : “Respect for people requires that people feels the pain of critical feedback.”  

A Learning System

Lean also is a learning system as Michael details below. This learning system is based on the scientific method and relentless experimentations.

This learning approach may end in very odd decisions when seen from consultants eyes view : a french medium sized company that provides inspection machines for the pharmaceutical industry has eventually decided to internalize the assembly of their machine and to create a supply chain. The aim is to improve quality and customer satisfaction : this is carried out with the employees and has created new job where the standard business beliefs, inherited from Jack Welsh strategy ideology, think it is impossible.

In many occasions, Michael proves that Leadership in the 21st century is no longer about how many people you can shanghai into your navy but how many free thinkers will choose to follow you out of their own free will.

Learning has nothing to do with generalities

In one sentence : this is the most powerful leadership book from the 21st century so far and Peter Drucker knows I’ve read my share of it. Just like Nabokov for literature, it seems to me that Michael is making a fantastic job in deconstructing what really is Leadership. He succeeds in doing so while getting out of generalities (topic of the quote below and the reason why Stanford’s Pfeiffer recommends to stop reading leadership books altogether) in order to get into the real gory details of what it takes to show great leadership.

I have found it very difficult to stay awake reading general leadership books after reading such a powerful thinker (I remember throwing away Pull by Jon Hagel as utterly irrelevant a few years back after getting into lean thinking).

“Our minds are hungry for generalities. From the Boardroom to LinkedIn, people share aphorisms as if they were deep knowledge. Strategy explained in broad brushstrokes. Motivation captured in a wise quote. One of the hardest lessons of lean is that generalities teach us nothing – they’re just chicken soup for the mind. Generalizations are comforting, seemingly wise and, in the end, meaningless. Wisdom however is real, and wisdom can be seen on the workplace : are products good ? Does work flow smoothly ? Is work easy ? “Do people look relaxed and engaged ? And what are the million detailed tricks and ideas to make that happen ? This, it turns out, is real knowledge”

Management innovation : the why, the what and the how

Regarding work in the 21st century, most management thinkers share the same “Why” (customer unhappy / teams disengaged / need to be agile to cope in such a changing economical context) and the same “What” (team empowerment). Yet, it gets quite fuzzy when we mention the “How” and the daily practices, bar the usual Google does this, Facebook does that, WL Gore Star does this, Zappos is doing – or do they ? Medium no longer does the usual stuff anyone with an internet connection and the right keywords can bring out.

This book sheds an amazing light on that very dimension by focussing relentlessly (again – Lean is management and management is hard work) on two things. First by going to where the value is created (The Gemba) the real place, to confront the untractable reality, rather than staying in comfortable board rooms. Second by going back to the lean tools who has proved themselves during the last 60 years as great tools to make learning gap visible : andon, poka yoke, pull flow, visual management, etc … and to think through them thoroughly using the scientific method (PDCA).

As Michael points out, Toyota has developed empirically its approached over several decades. “It turns out that Toyota’s outlook is consistent with the common view of how our mind works, emerging out of cognitive psychology.”

The handicap of anti-spectacular

On a personal level, I have been having this conversation with many fellows interested as I am in management in our interconnected world. I am still puzzled as to why they don’t see the appeal of this business system. I can’t help but thinking that they show no interest in Lean because it is a rather old approach (from mid 50s), coming from the automotive industry and not based on  spectacular concepts – in the same way as Holacracy for instance (getting rid of managers : talk about a revolution !). Michael perfectly illustrates this point :

Rather than inventing enjoyable work from scratch, Toyota’s approach is to try to take away the least enjoyable aspects of work from every job, through the development of what they call “mutual trust”.

This does not sound sexy. Going to the Gemba to confront reality does not sound sexy. Working everyday in understanding our problems to learn and improve is not downright sexy either. It seems overwhelming and it is bloody difficult.

The key to lean-style motivation is to start from the operator upwards and to ask how we can create better conditions for the shop floor relationships to thrive : it’s an evolutionary process.

According to Michael study and practices of successful Lean initiatives, there is no alternative : 

Leaders have to change their minds : rather than seeking high level process or social designs, leadership should start from the ground up and immerse themselves in understanding the details of work.

This is the way to go if you are serious about succeeding in our complex world, while drawing on everybody’s contribution. This is all what Lead with Lean is about : let’s go together and we’ll figure out together : we have the thinking, the tools and the trust to face this situation as a team. As the saying goes Triumph without peril brings no glory. In that case the glory is a common culture of solving problems together. It is the priceless reward every executive is looking for. This book will explain them the way to go as Michael did with the many executives he has coached. 

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