Planet Lean: The Official online magazine of the Lean Global Network
Ballé: lean thinking is the only way to become adaptive

Ballé: lean thinking is the only way to become adaptive

Michael Ballé
June 25, 2015

FEATURE - Michael Ballé shares a few thoughts on leadership and respect for people, and tells us why lean management is the only way to make adaptive change a way of life.

Words: Michael Ballé, executive coach, author and co-founder of Institut Lean France

Leadership is about leading others to change.

When the waterhole is empty, it is the leader who leads the tribe to a new one. This means convincing people of the need for change (water won’t return suddenly or by itself), having a credible idea of which direction to walk towards, encouraging allies to get others on board, and dealing with the few who would rather die of thirst than let go of the waterhole they know.

Today’s business leaders often face similar situations: a safe, familiar but increasingly unprofitable position must be abandoned for a new one (whether we are talking about markets, technologies or organizations).

Leadership typically expresses itself as the forcefulness of gifted individuals. They are all-knowing visionaries, certain of what change should entail. They surround themselves with a cadre of devoted executives who drive the change. They execute changes by issuing orders and dealing roughly with naysayers, either dismissing their objections or actually pushing them out of the organization.

This kind of leadership aims for change from one stable, profitable situation to another stable, but more profitable situation. Change is achieved through re-organizing, re-conquering, re-structuring, re-engineering, and so on. It’s a one-step, all-or-nothing, do-or-die change, and hence execution is about dealing with change management and change resistance.

Unfortunately, this approach rarely works as hoped for. Beyond very few, very visible success stories, such as Jack Welch letting go of 30% of GE’s employee in his move away from manufacturing and into finance (which did turn out to be financially profitable), the track record of restructuring programs is not so good. First, the restructuring itself creates such internal friction that employees feel demotivated or even demoralized and not much gets done. Secondly, the “Promised Land” fails to appear. Many people inside the organization believe that they knew all along this wouldn’t work, but they were not listened to; now they have to live with the consequences, which is a bitter pill to swallow and makes failure even harder to bear. When dealing with grown-ups, individual experience can’t be discounted– whether each person’s conclusions are deemed to be right or wrong.

At its most basic, respect means doing your best to listen to other points of view and take other people’s experience into account.

In general, respect is not easy for leaders because it requires a) accepting they are not all knowing and b) listening to dissenters. Leaders are tempted to ignore both for the sake of the tribe’s “confidence” in their vision and acceptance of making the necessary sacrifices. History is full of dire instances where leaders ignore very sensible warnings and lead their people to disaster. While consequences may not be as grim today, the same mechanism is at work in many organizations. As Jon Maner and Charleen Case have shown, leaders can be tempted to both put down and isolate high-potential individuals to protect their power and position. 

How is lean leadership different?

The aim of lean management is to shift from one-go, all-or-nothing change to continuous, incremental change. The leader no longer tries to achieve one big change but to teach the organization how to change all the time. Change is organic and adaptive. There is no great plan of where we want to go, but constant efforts to improve and learn.

This approach to change starts with respecting people’s experience, understanding that it matters and that if people are going to willingly accept to change and learn, they must feel their experience is considered important. Lean change is therefore built on the individual commitment to self-improvement. The roots of lean go all the way back to Sakichi Toyoda’s discovery, in the late 19th century, of Samuel Smile’s Self-Help book – indeed the book that coined the term “self-help” – and sharing the belief that all great achievements have, at their basis, the individual will to bootstrap and seek what could be beyond the current situation.

In practice, the foundation of the change process is training in standards and practicing in dojos, and learning by solving daily performance problems to deepen one’s understanding of one’s own job in various, unique circumstances. Improvement plans have people try new practices all the time. The leader’s job is to encourage every person to move out of their comfort zones in small ways every day, to learn more and come up with suggestions.

Let us start to build the “pyramid of leadership and respect.”

ballé leadership commitment


The next layer of the pyramid is teamwork and learning to better work together. This is achieved by practicing team-level kaizen as the team identifies the improvement potential, studies its own work methods, comes up with new ideas and tries them out, evaluates the new method and implements it. As teams are empowered, encouraged and supported in improving their own work the company’s ability to change at granular level is greatly enhanced, and since the focus is on measured improvement, the risk of seeking change for change’s sake is low. This constant practice of kaizen at team level is what makes the company agile.

ballé leadership team commitment


One layer up, each department head is tasked with practical leadership: changing one step at a time. Changing one step at the time is the key to both evolving and learning. This is how the company learns to become adaptive as it continuously changes, but also learns from these changes. Ideology makes way to scientific thinking as changes are weighed up, implemented, tried out, evaluated, and rethought before the next one is considered.

In practice, each department head will be asked to be clear on:

  • The current change being tried out at department level: from before to after, and with what expected impacts;
  • Remaining problems from previous change steps and the reasons for these outstanding issues;
  • The next change point being considered: what problem needs to be solved and what countermeasures are being tested.
ballé leadership change


The top of the pyramid is company-wide change. Rather than imagining a destination, the lean leader (drawing from her observation of adaptive change at the gemba) develops a greater understanding of the dimensions of improvement at product and process level, in order to steer the company closer to its customers, to improve value and reduce waste so that more sustained profitability can be achieved by constantly striving to be better.

From a leadership standpoint, this entails focusing on deep change and then looking for the key individuals who will build the systems needed to learn how to change at the company scale, much like Taiichi Ohno contributed the Toyota Production System to Toyota’s approach to manufacturing, Kenya Nakamura set up the Chief Engineer system in the company’s product development function, or Shotaro Kamiya (known as the “god of sales”) created its sales system. These are not operating systems but learning systems that evolve organically in order to help the company to grow and develop continuously.

ballé leadership improvement


Strong leadership is required because of the relentless energy needed to keep kaizen going at all levels of the enterprise.

Discernment is also essential to distinguish what customers really want and keep moving forward. For instance, after focusing on improving quality, variety and cost, Toyota has, in recent years, added energy performance as a key driver of their future success.

Lean leadership is respectful because it starts from the acknowledgement of the value of each individual’s experience and the intent to develop that person’s autonomy in their job through training, participation in kaizen and in their department’s change-by-change transformation, and everyone’s involvement in the company’s lean journey.

Lean leadership doesn’t take change to people with a promise and a whip, but steers constant change to help a company to adapt to new circumstances without abandoning what is known and what works. No restructuring needed, no massive layoffs – just continuous, step-by-step change.

Respectful doesn’t mean weak. It doesn’t mean slow. Respectful means committing to individual self-development as the foundation of the change process. Lean change is led from the top, of course. This is no bottom-up exercise. The inspiration and energy flow from the CEO to value-level employee, but opinions are not imposed on the rank and file. The CEO’s job is to witness every kaizen effort and learn from them. To ask every department head to propose the next change and discuss with them what it should be. The CEO affirms the focus, but specific steps are drawn from people’s individual and collective experience at each level.

The lean balance of kaizen (improve performance daily) and respect (take into account people’s experience and development) drives the unique engine of a lean enterprise, which the CEO both steers and nurtures so that adaptive change is not a one-off, but a way of life. This, in the 21st century, is the true source of lasting competitiveness.


Michael Ballé photograph
Michael Ballé is co-founder of the Institut Lean France

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