Lean Leadership - Troubled Waters Require Capable Leaders at the Helm

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Canada's lean leaders need to look beyond the horizon and chart the future. In stormy times, true leadership skills emerge.

The rumbles on our economic outlook are troubling. The dollar is still up, foreign investment, profits and sales are down. Low cost Asian competition is eroding our market share. Financial scandals and corporate governance issues keep flaring into the headlines. Disasters such as terrorism, possible pandemics, and war continually reshape the world in which we work and live. There are so many “big" global issues, so much apparent chaos, that our minds are often distracted from the day-to-day jobs we do leading our businesses.

The world as we know it has changed - both economically and socially. What hasn't changed however, is the customers’ insatiable appetite for more value, faster delivery and better service.

Most business leaders are eager to return to their pre-recession profits and growth. But even when the economy is robust again, we may find the bounce back to previous profit levels is not a “slam dunk" in spite of a revived and thriving economy. During the past couple of years, while business executives have been making short-term decisions to survive, customers and markets have continued to change at a rate never seen before.

If we turn our worries and blame for new shortfalls to the currency fluctuations and Asian competition, it starts to sound like the same old “blame game" with different players. It's easy to fly high on adrenaline when you look at these global issues and threats. But, for a moment, let's step back and look at our business challenges from a lower altitude and a more local focus.

In doing this, we need to disregard the factors affecting our businesses that we can't influence and begin to look at those we can. The ones we have little or no influence over are things like the recession, currency fluctuations and major disasters. The area we can influence and affect is our own long and short-term strategies for transforming our companies, making them more competitive and customer focused. The bottom line is let's stick to our “knitting, " do our jobs and focus more on our roles as organizational leaders.

In North America we've proven that we can provide products and services competitively through innovation, inspired product development and comprehensive efforts to eliminate waste. But it does require a prolonged and concentrated effort. Leaders aren't hired to cry wolf when chaos threatens. The terms of employment are to use our leadership talents and drive improvements that will be seen and sustained on the bottom line.

We need to readjust how we use these talents and not be distracted by global factors, which are out of our control for the most part. We must accept the role we were hired for and focus on the business operations where we can have a real impact.

We are leaders, so let's lead. Most activities, whatever the company, can be classified as waste of one kind or another once you start to see it. As leaders, it is our responsibility to set the direction and motivate our staff to understand how to remove this waste properly rather than making incremental or point improvements.

This requires seeing and analyzing the process from end to end, not just at points or segments of the process. That becomes your road map to success.

Beneficial change happens in a very structured, sequential and organized fashion. Your teams aren't caught running around chasing low hanging fruit while creating what we call “exciting chaos. " When everyone rushes reactively to improve their individual areas they feel virtuous, after all they are helping the company, aren't they? In fact, they are only improving their areas or departments, often at the detriment of the entire process. It's your leadership and your measured future state plan that will bring order to chaos. Reactive flurry kills profits faster than any big external threat!

Striving to improve our own competitiveness by providing customers faster and better products or services will accomplish more than worrying about the next global crisis looming just around the corner. The only futures game we need to be in is the one that cuts waste so the customer sees more value.

Science tells us that nature likes order - it's human agents that generate the chaos. There are things that we can control - so let's get busy and do it!

Larry Coté is well known for his penetrating analysis and creative energy. He was with the Lean Enterprise Institute in Boston for almost two years as C. O. O. /E. V. P. He was the Founder and President of the Lean Enterprise Institute Canada.

Over the years, Larry has worked with 100's of companies at various stages of their Lean journey in many different business sectors. Larry has expertise in Toyota Production System concepts, diagnostics and assessment of Lean readiness. He works with the corporate leaders to develop effective plans for transforming organizations using Lean and adapting it to their particular culture.

Larry Cote
Lean Advisors Inc.

Lean Advisors Inc. (LEAD) provides Lean Training And Lean Implementation support to organizations of all sizes and sectors including healthcare, office, service, manufacturing, mining, aerospace, food processing, high tech.


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