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Guidance from Above: The Manager’s Role in Driving Lean

This is the third in a series on The People Side of Lean where we’ll explore trends and talent challenges faced by today’s manufacturing organizations as they strive to make the transformation to lean.

By James Clevenger, Ph.D.

James ClevengerThe success of your lean transformation hinges on several key factors, and one core area of focus is people development. More specifically, success depends on how well you prepare supervisors to become coaches and capability-builders so that your entire workforce can fully engage in lean fundamentals (i.e., problem-solving and continuous improvement). For supervisors to operate successfully in a lean environment, they have to step out of the role of “firefighter” and into “teacher”—to build direct reports’ engagement and problem-solving skills. Imagine if you had supervisors who could inspire their teams to see work as so much more than just “punching the clock” and getting things done? What if you had a super-engaged workforce that brought ten times more continuous improvement ideas and suggestions? Empowerment and engagement will accelerate productivity and build a high-performance culture.

People Side of LeanBut supervisors can’t do lean alone; leaders at all levels need to be similarly motivated and skilled, working from the same standard operating procedure. Lean requires all leaders to build engagement, trust, and respect; engagement then cascades downward. How can managers engage others if they themselves are not engaged? Too often, leaders of leaders fail to grasp just how critical their role is, and how important their support is to the success of building capability in their direct reports. Developing supervisors to coach and engage their teams will fall flat if their own managers are not demonstrating the same coaching or engaging behaviors.

“Leaders as Teachers”

Research shows that the manager of the leader is essential to ensuring that newly developed skills are transferred and applied back on the job. Without leader support or without an environment that supports and reinforces practice of the newly acquired skills, they won’t “stick,” the investment in learning is sub-optimized and possibly even wasted, and you have what is known as “scrap learning.” To avoid this—and more importantly, to drive lean—managers of leaders need to step up as role models, coaches, mentors, and teachers; they need to accept and be accountable for ensuring new skills and lean leadership principles are applied. In the foreword to The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership, Akio Toyoda wrote: “We are all growing and learning, and we all need teachers and coaches to help guide. We say at Toyota that every leader is a teacher developing the next generation of leaders. This is their most important job.” However, many interpret this as developing great technical skills; but it’s so much more than that. It’s also about developing broader skills in coaching, engaging, delegating, holding others accountable, and inspiring teams.

So how can a “leaders as teachers” approach support lean? Consider the case of Constellium, an aluminum fabricator, that recently embraced a large-scale transformation to lean. The company designed a change initiative around three pillars: lean tools, organizational changes in its manufacturing sites, and lean leadership. To drive this initiative forward, Constellium leveraged the experience and expertise of its second-level managers, transforming them into teachers and facilitators focused on improving—and eliminating waste from—workplace interactions.

The Leadership Transformation at Constellium

For manufacturers to deliver on lean, their (more) senior leaders need to reshape the existing mindset of what it means to be a leader—away from the more traditional view of managers as firefighters and technical experts, to the lean version. Constellium achieved this mindset shift by giving its managers and their direct reports related skills for coaching and communicating. In doing so, the organization established a common leadership language that spelled out lean leadership in action—when conducting meetings, giving feedback, or providing guidance and support. The managers of learners became not only credible coaches, but also respected role models.

“In our industry, which is very process-oriented and technical, the lean transformation required a change in management style,” says Constellium area manager, Raphael Matter. “Our area managers and [first-level] team leaders are very much focused on technique [or technical skills], as opposed to human interaction and behaviors, as is the style of the lean organization. This [leadership] training has allowed us to spend more time with our people and focus on the human aspect of their role as a manager. As an intuitive person, the training has allowed me to be much more structured and to use common communication tools with my team members.”

“At a corporate level, we were able to set the ground rules of the lean leadership culture that we wanted to implement by standardizing the way to deliver feedback, increasing confidence when faced with difficult conversations, and most importantly, respect[ing] people at deepest levels in the organization, in all countries, and in all our business units,” adds Talent Management Director Fred Ravat.

At the Front of the Class

Who better to drive development—either informal or formal—than managers of learners? Not only do they possess a wealth of experience, but they can also place it in the proper, shared context for the learner. When managers teach, their effort says I am invested in you; it says I want to know what you’re learning and for you to know that your learning has meaning and can be practically applied. It avoids the need for learners to ask: “Is my manager going through this training too?” When the leader is a teacher, learners don’t experience the frustration of returning to the job only to find out that their managers don’t even know or demonstrate the skills they just learned. Through feedback and reinforcement, leaders of learners are integral in helping the skills “stick” once they’re back on the floor. If managers do not support, reinforce, or model the skills themselves, why would you expect their direct reports to improve?

At Constellium, this frustration did not occur; the leaders of leaders had to “teach” their direct reports, and it made an impact back on the job. “Becoming suddenly a trainer to direct reports is engaging, challenging, and sometimes a little scary thing for our managers,” says Ravat. “However, the certification process and the content helped our managers gain much confidence. The highest return on investment was seen in the change in the relationship between managers and their direct reports.”

Constellium’s success illustrates how driving lean goes beyond the technical and work process aspects of manufacturing—to the people side: from technical expert to coach, from firefighter to leader-as-teacher.

Want the full story on Constellium’s lean transformation? Hear it directly from their key players:



James Clevenger, Ph.D., strategic account manager, has worked with manufacturing organizations to drive lean principles. For more information, visit or contact him at

Learn how DDI’s Manufacturing practice can help you optimize your talent for the success of your business.

Posted: 19 Nov, 2014,
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