Lean Leadership: Remove Barriers or Develop People? Need a Do-Over.

Lean Leadership: Remove Barriers or Develop People? Need a Do-Over.

What value do you add?

Whenever I start working with a leader or a leadership team, I always ask the question, what value do you add in this organization? The responses are often surprising. At a recent healthcare client, some said they add value by promoting their profession within the organization, some said they ensure exceptional high-quality, evidence-based patient care, others said they added value by executing strategy or connecting front-line staff with executives.  Almost all said the value they add was the ability to remove barriers of those reporting to them. No leader said that they add value by developing the leaders/staff whoreported to them.

No one.

I know the lean community – myself included – have purported the idea that it is a leader’s job to remove barriers. I have said these words, ‘when you go to Gemba, it’s your job to remove the obstacles for those that are adding value to the customer.’

What are the consequences of removing barriers?

But as I work as an improvement coach and understand the power of developing scientific thinking capability, I wonder if, in the quest to remove barriers, leaders are hijacking the problem-solving process. Does the idea that it is leadership’s job to remove barriers get in the way of developing a lean culture?

In my opinion, the answer is yes.

‘Telling’ doesn’t develop people.

As these same leaders interacted with the middle-managers below them, I saw a lot of ‘telling.’ Their feedback was direct and specific about what subordinates should do next to resolve an issue. While well-intentioned and maybe necessary, this type of leadership is actually an obstacle to the adaptive capacity of an organization. You can’t develop a culture of continuous improvement by solving all the problems yourself.

As David Verble points out in his article, ‘Leaders’ Actions Speak but Their Talk Matters in a Lean/CI Culture,’ one very specific practice that begins to develop a thinking pattern is to ask a question you don’t already know the answer to.  For those practicing Toyota Kata, the purpose of the 5 Coaching Kata questions is just that – to understand what the learner is thinking.

Asking questions – specifically the Coaching Kata questions – is an antidote to telling and another way to lead. By asking questions, you understand what people are thinking. You can compare this thinking to the problem-solving standard in your organization and then give feedback.

What daily value are you adding?

So, to all lean leaders out there, I ask you to consider what your daily work looks like, what daily value are you adding? Is removing barriers doing as much to improve the value or your organization as developing the learning capability of your organization?

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