Are You a Lean Six Sigma Leader?

by Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer and Systems Guy, Great Systems

Over the past few years, the application of lean six sigma thinking and lean six sigma tools has begun its shift away from the production lines. Lean six sigma tool use in many organization led to lots of success. Leaders and work teams now apply these methodologies in office settings, such as call centers and accounting departments. I can only wonder when we as leaders will turn these tools on ourselves with the same zeal. Most work team leaders do a pretty good job of talking about the need to be continuous improvement oriented. They consistently approve training dollars to learn about lean six sigma tools. What strategies will these same leaders try to make their own leadership systems more effective?

How Lean is Your Leadership Work System?

As I have said before, all organizations are made up of people and processes. This is true no matter what service or product they exist to provide. If we truly want to ‘walk the talk” as lean six sigma work team leaders, we need to make sure that the people and processes we are personally responsible for each day are as lean as they can be. This includes, by the way, the processes that the leader you see each day in the mirror affects, even if you are only an informal leader in your company.

EXPLORE MORE: Measuring Leadership Behavior Effectiveness

My experiences have shown me time and again how an organization’s leadership system is one of the most important systems in any business, school, hospital, government, or volunteer group. There are good reasons why leadership is the first of seven categories, and represents the most points, in the Malcolm Baldrige National Performance Excellence Award criteria. If we look at the types of business books that have been written over time, we would probably find that leadership books dominate that landscape. Still, I personally wonder if our leadership systems, and in turn our leaders, have really improved to a significant degree over that same time. Are our leaders getting leaner along with their organizations?

Can You Measure Lean Six Sigma Leader Effectiveness?

Some would argue that leadership is difficult to measure. Others would say that we already measure our leaders. Examples include the use of monthly and quarterly reports, daily stock performance, and annual profit numbers. I would argue that such approaches only give us a very general view of a leadership team’s effectiveness and degree of leanness. When we only look at these types of numbers, we miss out on opportunities to make this key work system even more effective. We don’t rely on only daily output to measure a production line’s effectiveness. Why should we use only macro measures when we assess leadership process performance?

There are three main types of processes that work team leaders use on a daily basis – decision making, personal behavior, and meetings. Each could be made leaner. Plus, through experience, networking, and a lot of personal thought, I have come to believe this. We can measure the effectiveness of individual leaders in these three areas on a regular basis. Does it bother you to measure your own performance on a daily basis? Worse yet, what if someone else measures your performance each day? If so, you might want to think about what you ask other people on your team to do each day. Isn’t only fair that you study your own performance with as much scrutiny as you apply to others on your team? Is there some reason why you don’t need to monitor your investments and contributions in this manner, even though others do?

DISCOVER MORE: How to Measure and Improve Your Leadership Work System

How Do Your Leaders Spend Their Time Each Day?

Individual leaders spend time and money each day to execute a common set of processes, just as front line employees do. Giving a person a certain title in a company does not make them any more or less trustworthy. It does not excuse them from the responsibility to make sure they personally spend time and money wisely. Consider the variety of formal and informal meetings that leaders conduct or participate in each day. Meetings represent the primary way in which leadership time, and in turn money, is spent each day.

Have we gotten appreciably better at getting the results we desire from a given meeting in the least amount of time possible? How lean are the meetings you conduct in your organization? Can you base your answer to this question on actual results, or is your answer speculation? Do you rely mostly on opinion, instead of fact, to gauge the effectiveness of one of the most time intensive processes (meetings) in your company? If so, how can you expect others to measure every second of their job?

I feel we would save a lot of money if we make our meetings leaner. Other key leadership processes remain for improvement. For example, how effective is the process work team leaders use to make key decisions? It may not be easy to measure these types of processes. Plus, it is tough to make them leaner over time. I do believe we can make some very supportive statements to our people through our attempts to ‘practice what we preach.’ Think about it. Don’t your leaders do the same things day in and day out? Do they measure their performance often enough to see a performance improvement trend?

LEARN MORE: How to Reduce Meeting Waste

How Does a Lean Six Sigma Leader Show Support?

For example, I have seen high performing companies use a leadership index as part of their employee survey process each year. This allows them to measure and trend the quality of both individual leadership behaviors and decision making effectiveness. These leaders make a statement about what is important when they choose to measure and improve their Leadership Index results over time. Such a practice also demonstrates their personal commitment to effective process improvement.

Managers and supervisors can be tough to measure in terms of process excellence. They move around a lot during the day. A lot of the time, they may not even be in the building. Their work does not seem to be as process-oriented as the tasks on an assembly line. If we pull back and look at these jobs from a greater distance, we can see the patterns of behavior and the processes that need to be made leaner. Imagine the influence a leader can have when they share their personal lean improvement results at the next work team meeting. This tactic is more effective than simple attempts to explain why ‘we all need to get leaner’.

Do You Need to Develop More Lean Six Sigma Leaders?

If you do the math, you will find that we have yet to measure, analyze, and begin to optimize some of the key processes that we spend a lot of time and money on each day in our organizations. We should not ignore a given process just because it is difficult to measure. Would your company benefit from leaner meetings that use more effective and fact-based decision making processes? Would you benefit from the use of an internal customer-focused approach to develop more effective leadership behaviors?

The tools to improve these processes are out there. Companies use them daily. In many cases, all we have to do is make a choice to measure ourselves just as we measure others. Are you a lean six sigma leader?

EXPLORE MORE: How Great are Your Work Systems?

Would You Like Some Help in Developing Lean Six Sigma Leaders?

If you would like more information about the leadership development tools and systems I have to offer, please send me an e-mail at

Keep improving!

Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer, Great Systems

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