The question of whether the chicken came first or the egg has occupied minds and spurred debate for generations. A similar paradox is being played out right now in organisations across the world: “Does a carefully conceived set of differentiators inform an organisation’s culture and performance, or should culture and performance give birth to differentiators?”.
All businesses know that customer service based on value and quality are critical for survival. Good companies realise that to retain and win new business, quality is not enough. Enter the differentiator; with companies spending time and money identifying what sets their service offering apart from that of their competitors. Once done, the marketers step in and communicate this set, top-down, to employees and customers.
But what becomes of this well-worn strategy when all good companies are using differentiators to stand out in the marketplace? And is it fair to say that trying to evolve a corporate culture or define a service offering by first thrashing out that set of differentiators, is a bit like trying to produce a chicken without an egg; or vice versa?
The most successful companies in the world, like Toyota and Apple, operate beyond differentiators; using an approach that creates thinking employees who drive innovation and problem-solving whether it’s a mop they wield or million rand budget.
These companies embody a philosophy known as lean leadership, which creates customer value through empowered people. It is deeply rooted in the Toyota Way and the Toyota Production System. Both strongly advocate respect for the inherent human intelligence of their people; trusting them, giving them enough carte blanche to manage their area of function in a way that effectively takes the business forward.
Companies like Toyota know that differentiators are far too static for the way business is done today. Lean leadership offers a different, more successful approach by creating an environment that allows organisations to remain in constant flux, able to pre-empt and respond fluidly and continuously to clients’ changing needs, lifestyles and the way they prefer to communicate.
These companies always manage to make the right move at crunch time. They seem to have a crystal ball on the desk of every leader in their organisation but in reality, they have for many years worked hard at creating a constantly thinking, moving, changing, bottom-up culture based on the lean leadership principle.
In the sort of switched-on world in which businesses operate, never before has there been a greater need for a shift towards this paradigm, using lean leadership as both a tool for cost reduction and operational efficiency, as well as a means to successfully transform organisational culture and the mindset and behaviours of the people who drive a business, its products and service offering.
Long before Toyota created the Lean Way, a similar concept was recorded as far back as the 16th century when the imagination was sparked of the French King Henry III as he watched the Venice Arsenal build galley ships, using a continuous flow process, in less than one hour. Lean leadership is far more than a trend. It works because it taps into the fundamentals of human behavior – cooperation and teamwork, creativity, validation and adaptability.
It is a philosophical mindset that, when understood and practised correctly, consistently helps others be their best and keeps an organisation strong and competitive.
Done right, it is also a lot of fun. People learn new things, improve processes and achieve results they never thought possible.
People are at the heart of the lean philosophy, which is based on five simple tenents: Involve all employees; Live the "bottom-up" approach; Define realistic sub goals/milestones and communicate results; Ensure constant communication; and Act and behave in a way that is consistent with what you say.
And it is people who drive the philosophy – and the organisation’s success. In any organisation, innovation and problem-solving should eventually give rise to what truly defines an organisation and sets it apart from its competitors, and this should be happening at the desks, computers and telephones, where most of the work is done.
It’s simply no longer good enough to once in a while change a little here and there. Improving products, processes, services, technologies and implementing ideas happens constantly in the most successful companies and it is impossible for this to be achieved by management alone. The competition nowadays between companies is no longer solely about how much market share can be achieved, but how dynamic a company is at adapting to change. To do this successfully, every pair of hands within an organisation, every brain, needs to be engaged in problem-solving and innovation.
Director of the Lean Institute Africa, Norman Faull, says, “Lean leadership’s strongest trait is that it allows for the fastest response to a problem. It relies on the continuous improvement of processes, paired with respect for people, no matter what their position within the organisation. This leads to a non-hierarchical decision-making landscape, where employees are empowered to solve problems quickly.”
Employees who find their own solutions are far more likely to practice self-motivation and feel a greater sense of ownership and responsibility. Few companies can afford the time and resources needed to constantly motivate, inspire and retain their human capital. Rather it needs to become part of the culture instead of one of a set of values imposed from the top down.
Lean leadership’s merit is the sustainability of its bottom-up philosophy. A consistent way of thinking and being in the vital role of leadership.
What lean leadership is not is a set-out recipe for success. It is not a management project, certainly not a one-off event. It is a continuous way of thinking and behaving for every person, department and team in an organisation. A never ending search for a better way. It is an environment of teamwork and improvement rather than a top-down imposed set of values and differentiators. Lean leadership, when properly practised becomes a culture of sustainability and innovation.
And it doesn’t stop there. The chicken and the egg become part of a productive cycle that is self-perpetuating, vital and creative. Chances are, as an organisation retains its most talented people and delivers services that offer continuous improvement and crystal ball innovation, the need for differentiators falls away since the chicken has hatched and word is out.
Fortune Gamanya is the Programme Director for the Lean Leadership programme at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business. The programme runs in May 2013