Jeffrey Liker, Professor of industrial and operations engineering at the University of Michigan, explains what lean leadership is and why it is needed, talking about the Japanese car-maker’s approach to forming leaders.

Why lean leadership? These days organisations around the world have at least dabbled in the tools of lean and gotten enough positive results to keep going. Yet, so many are disappointed that the new, beautiful processes, so well documented in value stream maps, do not perform as envisioned. People lack the discipline to follow the new procedures, sustain the newly embossed standardised work, call for help using the andon system, and solve problems as they occur.

Why? Because they lack the discipline and focus. Why? Because they do not see what is in it for them to do this new, extra work. Why? Because they do not really understand where these specific changes are headed and what they can do for them and the company. Why? Because they have not learned deeply enough to believe in all this lean stuff. Why? Because nobody they respect and trust has been teaching and coaching as they have gone through the change. Conclusion: leadership is weak, uncommitted to lean, and lacks skill and deep understanding. A dramatic change must take place to support and sustain lean transformation that starts with a diligent and disciplined focus on self development.

Ask enough whys, sometimes more than five are necessary, and more often than not you will find your way to inadequate leadership. By definition, leaders lead. That means they have people who willingly follow them. Virtually every modern book on leadership concludes leaders must paint a picture of the future state and purpose of today’s activities. Leaders must passionately believe in the purpose and process. Leaders must inspire others. And in lean we know that leaders must show the way through the methods to make forward progress. Those methods – stable processes, visual management, standardised work, problem solving, clear pictures of the target versus actual – are powerful tools if used properly by leaders.

This leads us to the definition of lean leadership. Why is it any different from any other type of leadership? One could certainly argue it is not different from the theoretical ideal of a leader, but it is also radically different from what passes for leadership in so many organisations around the world. We know the lean leader must possess the general characteristics and skills that we expect of effective leaders – painting a vision, getting to know what drives the people they lead, active listening, empathetic questioning, the ability to help people find a way to satisfy their needs, and you can add to the list. So what are the peculiar “lean things”?

The real essence of lean according to Toyota is embodied in two seemingly simple, but powerful concepts – respect for people and continuous improvement. Respect for people in Toyota means viewing them as long-term partners in the business that appreciate in value over time and then mining that value by challenging people to stretch themselves and grow. People who are unchallenged and stagnant, even if treated nicely, are disrespected in the Toyota view. The way people can grow their capabilities is through participating in continuous improvement. Continuous improvement literally means making things better every day, sometimes taking big steps and more often taking small steps.

Continuous improvement sounds like a great idea – always getting better – but there are clear skill sets needed and a variety of supporting tools. That is where lean comes in. Let’s consider some of the characteristics of lean leaders and what they do that is quite a bit different from typical leaders these days.


The starting point for a lean leader is managing from the gemba. This has become almost a truism, but few know what it really means. Obviously it means the leader has to be where the thing of importance is happening. That could be where the customers are (e.g., using the product, waiting in a hospital), where the finances are being done, where the product is being built, where the product is being tested, where components are stored in inventory, and more.

In the Woody Allen joke most of success is “just showing up.” Is it enough just to show up? The answer is absolutely not.

There is a growing popularity of standardised work for leaders. Basically this consists of an organised pattern of walking and observing the gemba, perhaps with a different focus area every day. This satisfies the first requirement of going to the gemba, but it can also be just “showing up.”

As Taiichi Ohno said:

“If you are out there at the gemba, do something for them (the workers). If you do the workers will think, ‘He’s watching us, but he comes up with some good ideas.’ That way when the workers see you they will look forward to your help again, and as a result they will begin telling you what makes the work hard to do and ask you to think of ways to make it better.”

Learning how to add value at the gemba is a totally different skill set to learning to walk a set pattern. It may be standardised walking and looking, but not standardised value adding. To add value requires skills that include many abilities:

  • To understand the process and see waste;
  • To ask the right questions and understand the problems;
  • To generate some ideas, but more importantly to draw out the ideas of those at the gemba;
  • To be a role model for good problem solving;
  • To have the skills in problems solving to be a role model and coach.


This is simply hard, but it is not unnaturally hard. The truth is that it is hard to learn any new skills, particularly for adults. Try to train someone who has little experience to play a musical instrument, or to play golf, or to cook a great meal, or countless other complex skills. Lean leadership requires a complex skill set that unfortunately few managers have developed.

At Toyota there is tremendous respect for “on-the-job development” (OJD) guided by a sensei (master trainer). Perhaps it is related to the long tradition within the company, and within Japan, of the master-apprentice relationship. We know how to teach. We can tell the difference between a good music teacher and a poor one. We would never let our children go to a short course to learn an instrument and expect them to come back in a week as experts. We know it takes dedication, practice, feedback from a good teacher, and years of intensive study. Why do we think we can develop a leader in an offsite or at a university short-course on leadership? It cannot be done. It has to happen at the gemba, with deliberate practice, with a coach, spread over years.

Toyota does this. In The Toyota Way, Gary Convis, a Toyota veteran, estimated it would take 10 years of OJD before he could really trust someone to be a Toyota leader. The process is simple. You are thrown into a challenging situation and as you work your way through it the coach shows up to check on your progress and provide advice, ask questions, and make sure you are not in over your head. But you must have the drive to solve the problems and to win the trust of the people. Through repeated practice doing this the leader will advance. Those who learn the most and demonstrate it at the gemba get promoted to higher levels of challenge.

As Toyota has grown so there are not enough sensei to individually coach leaders they developed more formal training and OJD. This has been a three step process:

  1. Toyota Way 2001 – Teaching the principles of the Toyota Way and then senior leaders did projects;
  2. Toyota Business Practices (TBP) – This is Toyota’s eight-step problem solving process. Senior leaders got a small amount of training, did eight month projects documented on A3s, and presented to the top executives. They then became teachers and part of the review process for the next level;
  3. On-the-Job Development (OJD) – The latest training is OJD. Leaders being taught to be coaches select one person they will develop. After two days of training on the basics of OJD, they work with that person to select a project that person will do using TBP, then coach that person through the process, while that person is leading a team to solve the problem.

All three of these waves have been primarily based on doing with a coach. They all started top down and the senior leaders became trainers with the help of a small number of coaches. Each took years – TBP took eight years to get down to the work groups. And senior leaders were repeatedly learning as they coached wave after wave of subordinates and evaluated their problem solving process. This is noticeably different from the usual corporate training programme, and consistent with the fundamentals of teaching a complex skill.


I do not know of any other company that has been willing to make such a serious long-term commitment as we see at Toyota to developing leaders. I view the Toyota story as a kind of True North. Directionally this is what you want to do. How close can you get?

In the meantime, at the end of the day, we are all responsible for our own development. Self development should follow the model we all know works for training. We must identify a goal for our future state. We must break this down into smaller chunks that we will practice. We should find a coach or seek out feedback 360 degrees around us.

Most importantly, we must become learners. The PDCA process applies as well to self development as it does to solving a problem: we must have some sort of plan, do it, check what happened, and make adjustments based on what happened. Every activity, every interaction, is an opportunity for self-reflection and learning. Often failures, for example the inability to win over a subordinate, are more instructive than successes. Working to control what we can control – ourselves – is a lifetime journey. Becoming better people will always pay off, regardless of the particular organisation we are part of, to better our lives, those we love, and ultimately our communities and society.

Further Reading

Jeffrey Liker and Gary Convis, The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership: Achieving and Sustaining Excellence, New York, McGraw Hill, 2011.

Jeffrey Liker and Michael Hoseus, Toyota Culture: The Heart and Soul of the Toyota Way, New York, McGraw-Hill, 2008.

Mike Rother, Toyota Kata: Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness, and Superior Results, New York, McGraw-Hill, 2008.

John Shook and James Womack, Managing to Learn, Using the A3 Management Process to Solve Problems, Gain Agreement, Mentor and Learn, Cambridge, Lean Enterprise Institute, 2008.