Lean Six Sigma has proven itself to be an influential and effective strategy, one that improves processes by identifying and removing wasteful practices. This calls into question whether a specific type of leader is needed to drive a company towards lean management, or whether the program itself can be self-led.
The most direct application of a Six Sigma model is in manufacturing. Anywhere that there is a repeatable process, like the building of thousands or millions of the same products, a systematic approach to identifying and tracking errors and defects is easier to deploy than what one might see within a more human team. However, lean management thrives within soft-skills environments, too, where people, not machines, play the central role. The reasons are the same. Although people’s activities might seem to vary from hour to hour, there are still patterns that can be observed, and metrics that can be applied, such as the duration and efficiency of meetings, the use of email, the efficacy and accuracy of reports and documents, and other time management and productivity related markers.
Where there are metrics, there is the opportunity to measure and improve, which makes for fertile ground for the application of the lean methodology.
Is there, then, a specific type of leadership ability that makes this all work better?
Leadership is one of the largest areas of study and practice in all of business. Numerous styles have been identified and practiced, some in league with lean management and others
entirely different. Two approaches have been seen to work well with the Lean Six Sigma method:
- Transformational leadership, in which a leader works with teams while simultaneously helping individuals further their leadership skills (hence the transformation).
- Transactional leadership, in which leaders identify what team members need to do to be rewarded or compensated for their efforts.
Some research shows that transformational leadership correlates to better performance of individuals and teams in organizations.
My own observations concerning leaders and Lean Six Sigma is that much has to do with the personality of leaders per se. People who are natural leaders tend to innately possess the skills – motivational, organizational, strategic and interpersonal – that lead to increased performance, and do not need to study leadership as a formal process.
This bears out in the revelation that most Six Sigma training organizations will bypass leadership entirely as a topic of study. As management. expert Lori Loethen, PhD., writes in Quality Digest, there is a connection between effective Six Sigma and leadership, but:
“It’s possible that the individuals selected for [Six Sigma] Black Belt positions are already stronger leaders [and are] simply more confident in their leadership skills than the general population. It could also mean that leadership skills are enhanced with additional education that fosters improved critical thinking skills such as the rigorous Black Belt study programs.”
This suggests that perhaps it is the actual content of the Six Sigma program that helps polish existing leadership abilities almost by osmosis, rather than formal training.
Quality Needs Leadership: 6 traits of a Lean Leader
Whether a leader joins a Six Sigma crew fully and formally trained, or develops the skills complementary to his or her own personality, a company undertaking a Lean Six Sigma program does need leadership. As mentioned in a previous post, a shift toward a lean production process seldom comes without some degree of resistance and friction. In that post, I discuss the S-Curve identified by Netland and Ferdows and published in the MIT Sloan Management Review.
The authors write about the four Lean stages that a manufacturing facility must go through. In brief, they are:
Stage 1: Beginner Plants. These show a great deal of resistance and doubt. New habits must be developed, and there is little immediate proof of success.
Stage 2: In-Transition Plants. Many start with small pilot projects. The pressure is intense to show progress and improvement.
Stage 3: Advanced Plants. Performing at high levels, but the rate of change starts to slow, especially as opportunities for further improvement begin to diminish.
Stage 4: Cutting Edge Plants. These must force themselves to pursue innovation and improvement beyond the current envelope of comfort.
Similarly, one leadership scholar, John Hamalian, has identified six traits of a Lean Leader that correspond roughly to the four stages of lean development. These traits are:
- Journey Embracement: accepting the concept of change and improvement as a perpetual pursuit, and not a quick fix.
- Relentless Pursuit of Perfection by embracing continuous improvement and insatiable curiosity. Hamalian writes, “Burning inside the heart and soul of every Lean Leader lies a fundamental belief that everything can be made better and that we must constantly strive to achieve perfection, knowing full well that pure perfection can never actually be obtained.”
- Fanatical Customer Focus: problem-solving and quality control can only exist when the customer becomes the “beginning and end of everything.”
- Champion of Simplicity: focusing on simplicity of action and living modestly.
- Gemba: a Japanese word that means ‘workplace,’ or in practical use ‘where value is created’ suggests that leaders should spend less time in the office and more time interfacing with staff and customers.
- Being authentic, upstanding and respectful, using techniques like leading by example and demonstrating respect for people.
Though there are many opinions and schools of thought on the subject, it can be confidently stated that effective lean management requires effective leadership. I cannot happen by itself. But the more natural that leadership is, the more efficient the process will be.
 Lethen, Lori, PhD. https://www.qualitydigest.com/inside/six-sigma-article/six-sigma-and-leadership.html#
 Netland, Torbjørn and Ferdows, Kasra (2014) What to Expect from a Corporate Lean Program. MIT Sloan Mgt Review. Retrieved from http://sloanreview.mit.edu
 The above section has been paraphrased from Hamalian, John S. (2015) 6 Key Traits of a Lean Leader. Process Excellence Network. Retrieved from https://www.processexcellencenetwork.com/lean-six-sigma-business-performance/articles/6-key-traits-of-a-lean-leader