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Leadership Lessons from Lean-Valuing People in Teams

One of the most important discoveries that leaders made as they unfolded the Lean Revolution, from the 1940’s onward to today, was to understand how important and valuable their front-line workers are.  In classic mass production, the worker became merely a cog in a machine.  He or she performed only a few tasks, and perhaps only one.  Those tasks were often defined through time and motion studies - capturing what was then thought to be the best of “scientific management.” They were delegated to workers by management who, in their wisdom, designed the task to be as simple as possible and as free from superfluous movement. The worker did not have to think - it was usually better if he didn’t. Wisdom about how to do work well came from above.  

The result of this perspective was stultifying work to which the employee contributed little or nothing. No wonder the period of mass production at its peak in the West in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw the insurgent rise of labour unions to stand up for workers’ interests, confronting management as a kind of adversary.  It was clear that management had little respect for workers as people.

Sadly, this way of treating workers is far from disappearing in the working world. Most of us know stories about people being treated this way, and reports from high-volume manufacturing sites producing high-tech consumer products in China and elsewhere show that workers are still being treated as mindless executors of industrial processes designed by managers.

The early Lean leaders in Japan turned these principles on their heads. As they began to study their production methods with an eye to improving quality and otherwise finding competitive advantage against large western mass producers, they saw immediately that their workers could provide invaluable insights into opportunities for change and improvement. The workers were the ones doing the work! They were accordingly the experts on how it should be done.

The Japanese Lean leaders also rediscovered the obvious fact that their workers were intelligent, insightful human beings - their knowledge, their experience, their intelligence, their creativity and their goodwill were hugely valuable resources for learning how to do great work together. The result was a working partnership of intelligent, committed people in all roles instead of a hierarchical top-down autocracy.  

A guiding principle for leaders of Lean became the wonderful phrase, “Go to the Gemba.”  

By Gemba they meant the factory floor. In Japanese, Gemba means “the real place”, the place where the action, the important things take place.  The word is used by Japanese news reporters to mean the scene of the action, or the place where the real news is being made.  This idea of the Gemba is a very significant shift of ethos from the top-down philosophy of Western mass-production manufacturers. In such an organisation, the Gemba is arguably the executive office wing.  That is where decisions are made and tasks allocated.

Recognising that the Gemba was the factory floor - that where the products were made was actually “the real place” or the “scene of the action” and that the workers operating there were a key resource for growth, that managers needed to go there and be there to see what was going on, ask questions and work hand in hand with workers to design and deliver improvements in the product - was a complete transformation brought about by the Lean Revolution.

One very famous implication of these changes was the policy of allowing any worker to stop the production line if he or she (in those days usually he) observed a quality problem he could not immediately rectify. This was a dramatic symbol of empowering the workers to make decisions that affected the whole production process, completely at variance to the mass-production ethos where the workers had no insight into any possible changes or issues and where the power to stop the line would only have been granted to a superviser.

A remarkable fact about Lean production is that, although line workers have the power to stop the line, they almost never need to do so.  Using the insights, wisdom, creativity and goodwill of the whole factory team working together, quality problems that workers cannot immediately rectify are so rare that the workers almost never need to stop the line.

It is crucial to note also that the Lean founders valued people in teams. In this context, the Japanese leaders relied on and developed the concept of “ba”.  

“Ba can be thought of as a shared space for emerging relationships. The space can be physical [e.g. office, dispersed business space), virtual (e.g. email, teleconference) mental (e.g. shared experience, ideas, ideals) or any combination of them. What differentiates Ba from ordinary human interaction is the concept of knowledge creation.  Ba provides a platform for advancing individual and/or collective knowledge. It is from such a platform that a transcendental perspective integrates all information needed. Ba may also be thought of as the recognition of the self in all.”*  

These are powerful and deep concepts of team. The idea of Ba is attuned to the ideal we are seeking to capture when we work with the concept of Temenos.  The ideal space for a working team is a shared space, a safe space where all are welcome, seen and heard, and where all the diversity of insight and perspective contributed by each member is welcomed.  Ba is the place where collective intelligence flourishes. The Lean leaders discovered that the power of their collective intelligence as an organisation, when that collective intelligence was properly respected, nurtured and nourished, was exponentially greater than the intelligence of individuals, especially managers, acting alone. The whole was immensely greater in effectiveness than the sum of the parts.

In foundational Lean, people of all different backgrounds work together to study the means of value creation and to look for improvements. Instead of just being responsible for one stultifyingly simple and repetitive process, workers are encouraged and invited to take responsibility as a team for the total quality of the product they make.  The result was and is thousands of small improvements, suggested and implemented by line workers working on site with managers to streamline production and build in quality.

This transformation paid enormous dividends.  Japanese manufacturers seized world leadership in automobile manufacturing and electronics. Today, the ideas they piloted have become standard practice all over the world - at least in theory. Sadly, some managers have seen Lean as simply a way to reduce costs - and indeed to shed workers - and thus have missed the opportunities for collective creativity and team-based continuous improvement and innovation that Lean offers.  Organisations led in this limited way have generally not experienced the competitive advantages that a deep-seated embrace of the foundational Lean ethos would suggest.

On the other hand, Lean insights, properly embraced, have become a core part of the competitive success of many companies and industries - most notably today in the startup world, where the principles of the Lean Startup as articulated by Steve Blank and Eric Ries have supported a wave of disruption to large, traditional top-down leadership. The result of this ethos is rapid improvement, change and innovation in productive processes and business models.

So, what are the leadership lessons from this Lean insight?  The people doing the work are wise: they hold and can develop key insights every day about how to do the work better. People are intelligent, creative, responsible, intentional. Trust them and empower them and they will surprise you.

The Gemba - the real place, the scene of the action - is the place where the work gets done - where products are made, where services are rendered, where the customer is touched. Not the executive office.

The place for the leader is right in the middle of the people doing the work - although much of the time the leader is there to watch and learn and to remove obstacles, rather than to control, direct or get in the way of the team members.

There is enormous creative and generative wisdom in teams, teams of people doing the real work. People with a wide range of diverse skills and experience need to work together and to share creative insights to define and create improvements and innovations.  Creating great containers - encouraging Ba, or as we would say, creating a Temenos - is a recipe for enormous productivity, creativity and innovation.

This kind of respect and honouring of people throughout an organisation - and their place in safe, diverse, welcoming spaces - unlocks enormous personal and organisational creative potential.  As a way of life for leaders, it is a crucial ingredient of success in the emerging world of conscious, abundant, dynamic organisations.

Are you inspired by a vision of Lean-Agile leadership that truly values people and teams, and seeks to release their full creative potential? If you are, we’d like to connect with you and find ways to collaborate. We have many resources to share and we’d love to hear your stories and learn about your vision.  

Please join us as for our continuing series of webinars, at one of our meetups, one of our Temenos Gatherings, or one of our accredited trainings in scaled Agile practices around the world. All of which explore and embody the principles described in this post. Links to all these opportunities and more can be found in our global events calendar here: https://www.visiontemenos.com/events.

Please share with us your experiences and insights around these ideas. We are particularly keen to hear your stories of great practice in action - or of how you have coped with and moved beyond practices that seemed less than great.  The author’s email address is scott@visiotemenos.com; you can also connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, LInkedIn and YouTube.

*Ikujiro Nonaka and Noboru Konno: The Concept of Ba, California Management Review, Spring 1998

Please find below webinar session recording

          Please find below the slide deck from our recent webinar on this topic


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