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Five Leadership Essentials for Lean Success

By: Lisa Weis
Coworkers celebrating some good news in a factory

The Association for Manufacturing Excellence (AME) defines people-centric leadership (PCL) as a leadership approach that seeks to create a culture in which everyone is encouraged to improve and apply their talents and given the opportunity to pursue excellence at work every day. In PCL, leadership focuses on providing employees with what they need to go home feeling like they are flourishing and helping to fulfill a greater common purpose, which is important for morale and retention, innovation and product quality. All too often, PCL is missing from lean manufacturing, causing many manufacturers to struggle to sustain long-term continuous improvement. Lean only succeeds when tactical continuous improvement is combined with respect for all people within the organization.

As a manufacturing specialist for the Delaware Manufacturing Extension Partnership (DEMEP), part of the MEP National NetworkTM, I help small and medium-sized manufacturers (SMMs) develop people-centric leaders, which lets them leverage the skills of their employees and is required for lean success.

Take, for example, Justin Tanks, a Delaware manufacturer of large fiberglass tanks. When I first worked with the company, it had begun its continuous improvement journey, but it was running out of steam. By turning its efforts toward creating people-centric leaders, the company was able to build a foundation for continuous improvement and growth.

According to Ed Short, Justin Tanks’s CEO, PCL training has helped the company:

  • Actively listen to its people’s ideas with acceptance and without judgment, which allows more ideas to be explored and successfully implemented.
  • Understand and appreciate the unique behavioral tendencies of each individual.
  • Communicate in a way that meets the needs of others.
  • Make decisions by balancing the needs of the entire organization with the needs of the individual.

If these outcomes sound like things you’d like to foster at your company, here are five PCL essentials you can use to achieve similar lean success.

1. Self-Reflection

One of the biggest lean roadblocks is when management wastes time trying to control other people. People-centric leaders spend their time and energy reflecting and evaluating themselves. They take responsibility for their own behaviors, which in turn influence the behavior of the employees.

2. Relationship Building

Leaders build relationships with and between people. People-centric leaders recognize they don’t have all the answers and that they need all the talents from their entire organization. Leaders must get to know the whole person. They must trust their employees and act with humility. Leaders who act with humility inspire trust.

3. Listening and Communication

In a people-centric culture, leaders listen more than they speak. They purposely learn and practice how to actively listen. Listening is the most important thing that good leaders do. As noted by Bob Chapman, CEO of the Barry-Wehmiller company, “Doing this one thing can profoundly impact an organization. It can set an organization on a path to a better future.”

4. Celebration and Recognition

Everybody likes pizza, T-shirts and monetary gifts, but these things do not necessarily make people feel appreciated for their unique contributions. One of the biggest complaints I hear from people in the organizations I work with is that their boss has no idea what they do. Perhaps a simple thank-you would have more impact. Employees need to know their work has meaning – and that they are part of something bigger than themselves. People want to contribute and be appreciated, not be controlled and rewarded.

5. Coaching and Development

According to Edgar Schein’s book, "Helping," when leaders offer correction or provide a solution, employees can feel frustrated, resentful and demoralized. Effective coaching uses a Kata-based scientific way of thinking, which causes people to self-evaluate and engage their minds. It shifts control from the leader to the employee, which results in self-improvement and growth.

How to Build People-Centric Leaders

How can your managers take advantage of PCL? First, it’s critical to remember that like any lean journey, leadership is one of continuous improvement. This journey begins with discarding traditional “director” leadership paradigms in lieu of supportive coaching roles.

Once you’re ready, the above PCL essentials can be developed through education, coaching, reflection and practice. This process includes developing systems to support organizational continuous improvement and clearly communicating strategies and expectations across the organization. This is accomplished by using the PCL framework developed by the AME PCL Curriculum Development Team.

The framework includes:

  • A mindset focused on valuing, respecting and caring (forming the foundation for creating a people-centric culture).
  • Leader behavior development, per the five PCL essentials outlined above.
  • Establishment of systems to support a people-centric culture including goal setting, feedback and alignment throughout the organization.
  • Integration with organizational continuous improvement.
  • Capability development that engages the minds of everybody in the organization.

These elements drive growth and prosperity for the individual, the organization, the stakeholders and the community. PCL engages the minds of the entire workforce to drive continuous improvement and achieve greatness.

Looking for leadership support in your organization’s lean journey? Contact your local MEP Center to talk to a lean expert or other manufacturing specialists who understand the needs and challenges of smaller manufacturers.

About the author

Lisa Weis

Program Lead, Enterprise Excellence at DEMEP, Lisa Weis is a people-centric, lean/continuous improvement expert with more than 20 years of demonstrated success in helping hundreds of public and private organizations achieve their vision and meet their strategic goals. She is also an AME mid-Atlantic board member and is the lead for curriculum development for the AME people-centric leadership initiative. Lisa has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Chemical Engineering, Cum Laude, from the University of Delaware.

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