The Roles of Manager and Leader in Lean

Gene Leonard, LBSPartners
Helen Blake, Futurecurve

At the heart of a Lean programme is the daily meeting at the visualisation board. If the organisation is truly committed to Improvement, then these regular reviews are key to embedding Lean within the culture and achieving the necessary behavioural changes to deliver a true operational transformation.

Joining an operational team for their daily huddle at the visualisation boards this morning, it struck me how challenging it is to switch from the role of a manager into that of a leader and coach within minutes of leaving your desk. As it happens, my client, this morning made the switch naturally and intuitively, and I have been reflecting and asking myself if this is unusual? Is every manager capable of achieving this switch into the role of leader/coach?

The roles of Manager, Leader/Coach are fundamentally different, although many organisations regard them as the same thing. To be clear, Managers look after planning and processes whereas Leaders inspire and lead their team members. The Coach role is another facet of the leadership role.

If we remain in our manager role when we meet at the visualisation board, we can easily go straight into identifying and solving process problems, leaving the team feeling like a group of bystanders. This behaviour can create an increasingly defensive culture as identifying problems is invariably accompanied by looking for someone to blame.

I see this so often in business and recently discussed it with the CEO of Futurecurve, Helen Blake.  As an organisational psychologist, Helen shared this insight with me.

“As managers we try to take control, often without reflecting on what is actually going on right now – the reality of the given situation. This reflective process is called the Accounting Cycle, made up of 4 stages:

  • Existence – understanding what exists here
  • Significance – understanding what is truly significant in the reality of what exists
  • Solvability – forming options to deal with those areas that are significant and need attention
  • Personal/Organisational Capacity – recognising what we can do to move into action or planning for action.

‘The trouble is, most people and organisations are desperate to move into stage 3, solving the problem, without looking at how the problem got there in the first place (stages 1 and 2).  Good leaders ask questions, understand what’s happening and why, then motivate their team to create change whereas a coach will listen and observe, look for trends and root causes then encourage people to look at the options and choose the option they are confident they can action.

In this way, when we take on the role of leader or coach, we give our people the scope to make their own choices. If we stay in the role of manager when dealing with human-related issues, we default to the process, limit the power of our people and once we do that we lose dynamism and possibility for engagement, enthusiasm, and personal responsibility…all the things we hired them for.”

The daily Huddles at the visualisation board is not the place for managerial behaviours; this is the place for being a leader and coach. It requires collaboration, reflecting on the information presented and the impact it may have on the day ahead; connecting the team’s work to business goals. Leaders encourage everyone to contribute, put their ideas forward and praise achievements. The coach recognises and meets the information needs of the individual members of the team.

When companies tell us their Lean programme hasn’t embedded into the culture of the organisation, we know we need to observe the behaviours and activity at the daily huddle around the visualisation boards because this is a key indicator of the existence of a Lean culture.  These visualisation board meetings are so important that we at LBS have designed a training module specifically around the roles of manager, leader and coach.  This utilises our emotional intelligence (EQ) and although some people have high EQ levels, for those that don’t there is increasing evidence, (particularly as we learn more about the neuroplasticity of our brain), that EQ skills can be learnt and developed over time with the commitment and motivation of the individual and the support of the business.

There is much debate around the issues of management, leadership and EQ and I would be interested in your views and experiences particularly when applied to Lean programmes. Share your thoughts.


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