Harry Dunlevy is a Partner at people services business Independent, which provides HR, resourcing and talent support to blue chip clients in the UK and France. Here he describes what effective leadership in a lean environment looks like.

Most businesses, whether commercially focused or otherwise, would accept that their organisational effectiveness and performance are influenced significantly by the quality of their leadership.

Despite this, the time and effort typically expended on leadership definition, assessment and selection is rarely proportionate to its importance. Too often, organisations neglect such fundamental activity at their peril.


A large body of research into leadership has been conducted by a number of eminent thinkers, practitioners and academics. The work of Peter Drucker, who famously stated, “management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things,” provides an excellent benchmark for good leadership practice. Research has shown that the most effective leaders possess a number of common qualities, as outlined below. The best leaders also enhance their effectiveness by understanding that good leadership requires ongoing development and improvement; they take ownership of their own personal development and do not believe that asking for help and support is a sign of weakness.

Examples of key leadership qualities and behaviour include:

  • Clarity about what needs to be done, the level of performance/quality that should be achieved and by when;
  • Supportive behaviour – offer and accept constructive suggestions and help others identify and solve problems;
  • Acting as role models for others in the organisation – earn respect through their behaviour and achievements;
  • Being good listeners;
  • Recognising good performance and contribution from others and create enthusiasm and loyalty by doing this well;
  • Dealing with any individual or group conflict promptly and efficiently;
  • Effective delegation to ensure that all resources are properly deployed and engaged;
  • Successful change management – from dealing with daily change through to major change events such as the launch of a new product or process.

In a lean management environment the culture is focused on teamwork, continuous improvement and high levels of engagement. There is a drive for greater efficiency, minimal waste, problem analysis and problem solving. Regular, constructive communication between teams and leaders, flexible working and multi-skilling are also priorities.

With greater attention given to measurement and performance, leaders are constantly required to provide feedback to team members; feedback which could be the difference between the success or failure of the team member and overall group. For this to work well, feedback skills are critical. An attempt to change behaviour can sometimes be interpreted as criticism and as a result can damage the leader/member relationship, leading to decreased confidence and reduced engagement. Importantly, it can also have a detrimental impact on the other ‘good’ behaviours of the member affected, overpowering the purpose of the initial feedback.

To combat this, the leadership focus needs to be on positive reinforcement. This involves taking advice feedback one step further, with the leader expressing how much they would appreciate the member’s assistance in reaching the desired behaviours or results. This kind of interaction has the most positive outcome by increasing motivation, confidence and performance. By relating feedback to action, behaviour or desired result and not to the personality of the team, employee effectiveness can be significantly increased. The ability to listen well is a cornerstone of good leadership and those effective in this area know when to stop talking, how to recognise non-verbal clues and provide visual feedback with non-verbal expression.

One of the features of working within a lean management discipline is regular progress reviews with the team, which in many organisations can take the form of daily performance reviews through group discussion. On these occasions everyone has the opportunity to contribute within the group, which can be less time consuming overall and more productive to the organisation than individual feedback sessions.

However, discussion time within a meeting can also lead to a build-up of frustration, simply because there is a natural tendency to want to ‘do’ things rather than ‘talk’ about them. In order to avoid the inevitable frustrations of unproductive meetings, leaders need to identify the purpose(s) of each discussion, whether it is to gather information, exchange ideas and/ or solve particular problems. By establishing this from the outset, it is easier to participate, keep the discussion on track and get results. It is important to remain aware of how the discussion is progressing. Is it focused on the development of information, ideas or issues or on the evaluation of information, ideas or issues? Skilled leaders will act as facilitators to enable all team members to have their say but will also ensure that frustrations are eliminated and real outputs generated.

Visual management is also a good way to ensure focus. This can involve the use of whiteboards showing actions, ownership, timescales and progress, which brings a higher degree of action orientation and ensures that team members see progress day by day.

An essential characteristic of high performing teams is a collective vision of quality output. All team members should have a good understanding of what is required of them as individuals, a clear idea of what the team aims to achieve and, most importantly, know how they can support each other in getting there.

Good leadership ensures that teams are nonhierarchical, with leaders themselves perceived as additional team members who will, if necessary, roll up their sleeves and provide hands-on support to the group. Leadership is accepted as something that adds value and is not simply there by virtue of status or organisational definition. In such a culture there is a natural tendency to be supportive, with team members training and passing on their skills to each other to enhance the power and impact of the team.


Businesses aiming to instil effective leadership should begin by defining what leadership means in the most relevant and appropriate way for their particular organisation. While there is plenty of generic information available, for it to be really relevant a tailored model should be produced. Known as a leadership framework, this can be developed by examining company values, creating a structured interview process and conducting interviews with a number of key players and influencers within the organisation. Business performance, future strategy and the role of lean management are major considerations in this process too.

Typical interview questions might include: ‘What would make a good leader in this organisation?’, ‘What leadership attributes do you think are currently lacking?’ and ‘Describe what a leader needs to achieve in this instance.’ Outcomes from the interviews can then be assembled to establish common themes and principles, which, through an iterative process, can be turned into a leadership framework consisting of a set of criteria with supporting statements.

Ideally, the framework should be reviewed and approved by the board or senior management as an endorsement of leadership behaviour. This document then becomes the cornerstone for the future assessment, selection, development and performance management of employees. Many organisations also use it to communicate to the management team and the rest of the workforce how its leaders are expected to perform, what they can anticipate from them and the sort of culture that will evolve as a result.

Progressive organisations conduct talent reviews as part of their talent management policy and these reviews can provide the motivation, data and structure to dig more deeply into the quality of talent available, both current and potential. Taking the leadership framework as the reference point, the next step in the process is to understand the current scope of leadership capability and examine where gaps exist.

Establishing the leadership capabilities of specific individuals needs a consistent approach and assessment or development centres are usually the most effective vehicle to achieve this. They provide a powerful way of taking an in-depth look at individuals through various exercises and evaluation tools and through the eyes of a number of evaluators. They can also be an effective way of providing developmental feedback to participants.

Centres are typically structured to include psychometrics, role playing exercises, team-based events with a clearly defined and required result, and structured one-to-one interviews. In my experience, these work well with approximately 12 participants being reviewed by six assessors, with each focused on two candidates. The role of line managers as assessors in this process can prove really valuable in engaging them with the leadership and development agenda. Many then go on to act as mentors to leaders with potential and so play an active part in their personal development.


In line with the lean management ethos of continuous improvement, leaders need to recognise and engage personally with a continuous development agenda. Growing the skills of everyone in the team and creating specialisations where needed will have a positive impact on team performance and morale. Simple visual management aids such as skill matrices prominently displayed within the work area can be valuable motivational tools, giving the team a real sense of identity and confidence in their individual and collective abilities.

Effective leaders take charge of their own personal development plan, making sure it includes important components like people skills, team working and 360-degree feedback. This should then be shared and regularly reviewed with their manager. While development can be carried out internally through in-house programmes, there is real value in exploring external options for learning through best practice and benchmarking. Many of the UK’s leading academic institutions, such as Cranfield School of Management and Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) at the University of Warwick, have led the way in this area. WMG, for example, has an outstanding global reputation and has worked closely with important companies in the automotive and aerospace sectors in establishing successful lean management practices.

Few would argue that if businesses are to be productive and profitable they need to have effective leaders. But rather than simply empowering those individuals perceived to have some of the ‘right’ leadership qualities and leaving it at that, the best performing organisations treat leadership as an ongoing, rigorous process underpinned by a clear leadership framework and tailored to the particular requirements and culture of the business. In a lean culture, with its emphasis on measurement, performance and continuous improvement, the most effective leaders are highly skilled in communication and recognition; providing regular feedback and progress reviews characterised by positive reinforcement. The net result is a progressive, mutually supportive workplace characterised by minimal disruption and high performance.