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Q&A on the Book Leading Lean

Key Takeaways

  • Strong leadership is the capability that is most lacking when organizations undertake digital transformations and the lack of it is, in the author’s opinion, the number one reason so many of them do not reap their expected benefits
  • Technology and responding to the rate of change that it causes is the biggest challenge facing Modern Lean leaders today
  • The Modern Lean Framework is the blueprint available for today’s leaders when creating the 21st century digital Modern Lean Enterprise (MLE), offering greater levels of responsiveness to change than ever before
  • To excel at innovation, Modern Lean leaders need to think with a disruptive mind and be proactive in responding to disruptive trends in their industry and marketplace, ensuring they remain relevant and competitive
  • Becoming a great Modern Lean leader involves making a commitment to put in the necessary time and effort on your part as you experience both successes and failures along the way, because it is how you react to failure that allows you to learn and grow into the best leader possible

Leading Lean by Jean Dahl describes a journey that leaders can embark on to respond to disruptive change. It leads them through the six dimensions of leading self, others, the customer, and the enterprise, by creating an innovative culture that delivers value. It provides not just the theory behind Modern Lean, but also practical methods, tools, strategies, and case studies bringing the concepts and methods alive to help leaders and organizations thrive in today’s global economy.

InfoQ readers can download an extract from Leading Lean.

InfoQ interviewed Jean Dahl about the challenges leaders face today, what modern lean and lean leadership look like, how digitization impacts the way companies interact with their customers, what's needed for companies to become successful in innovation, what leaders can do to make culture change happen, and how leaders can measure and improve their own leadership qualities to become modern lean leaders.

InfoQ: What made you decide to write this book?

Jean Dahl: Lean is probably one of the most misunderstood schools of thought around, which is probably why so many companies fail at digital transformation, because it is more about exercising strong leadership capabilities than focusing on the processes or underlying technologies. When I say "Lean," most people either equate it to Lean Six Sigma or the Toyota Production System (TPS). And yes, those methods are focused on the removal of waste and continuous improvement, represented by such activities as benchmarking, measurement, process standardization, and creating the fast, flexible flow of work needed to run as efficiently as possible. However, they miss the mark when it comes to the second pillar of the Toyota Way, respect for people, who are at the core of the Modern Lean enterprise (MLE).

In my opinion, leaders are the missing ingredient and Toyota realized this as they began to globally expand their operations in the early 1980s. What they found was they could build the production lines and teach workers the methods to operate them in other countries, but Toyota’s success was based on having built a culture of self-led servant leaders in their Japanese plants who were self motivated to take action to keep these systems running well over time. The key to unlocking global success was the codification of "The Toyota Way" in 2002 that stressed both continuous improvement, as well as respect for people; the key that slowly made Toyota become the #1 vehicle manufacturer in the world in 2009.

This misunderstood connection is what brought me to write this book. There is a scarcity of great leaders in the world today and an understanding of how all the pieces come together to form the modern 21st century digital organization is even more scarce. it is my hope that this book will explain why leadership must be looked at from multiple dimensions and applied on a situational basis to all that we do throughout the entire organization.

InfoQ: For whom is this book intended?

Dahl: This book is intended for anyone who wants to become a better leader in the digital era, regardless of their formal title, position, or the type of work they perform within their organizations.

InfoQ: What are the major challenges leaders face today?

Dahl: The biggest challenge leaders face today is change and responding to it.  The rate of disruption has been accelerating over the last 60 years, driven by mind-blowing technological advances.

Case in point, just think about the technology behind the Internet. Just 25 years ago people would not have even thought that our world would be connected together in a massive web that almost everything hangs off of, from our computers, phones, grocery stores, and shopping networks, such as Amazon and eBay. We don’t even have to leave our homes to go shopping, pay bills, and stream the latest hit movies on our TVs from the comfort of our living room couch. We live in a world that most of us would never have imagined just 25 years ago. And with this rapid rate of change has come massive amounts of disruption as one "IT" thing after another routinely hits the global marketplace week after week, as leaders no longer compete with merely the guy or gal down the street. Instead, their major competitor could be halfway around the world! So, adjusting and being able to flex and adjust as these waves of change hit us is now an integral part of being a leader in the 21st century.

InfoQ:  You mention Modern Lean in your book. How exactly is that defined?

Dahl:  Modern Lean is a combination of all of the Lean schools of thought that focus on the mechanics of Lean, such as lean Six Sigma, the Toyota Production System (TPS), Toyota Business Practices (TBP), the Plan/Do/Check/Act (PDCA) cycle, etc, and the Lean mindset characterized by the the two pillars of "The Toyota Way," respect for people and continuous improvement. To really become a Modern Lean leader within a truly Modern Lean organization, we must focus on not just the processes and technology that Lean methods bring, but also the people side of the equation that the latter emphasizes to create a holistic MLE that hits on all cylinders. After all, it is people who accept and respond to change, by changing the underlying processes and technology; not the other way around.

Up until now, these two camps have been viewed as somewhat separate schools of thought. Lean is about people who optimize and evolve the systems they work in, in the pursuit of perfection. So, bringing them together under the umbrella of "Modern Lean" provides a holistic picture to transform the 21st century company into a responsive and agile organization that can flex and change with the times. That is what my book, Leading Lean:  Ensuring Success and Developing a Framework for Leadership, is all about. It provides a blueprint for success, represented by the Modern Lean Framework that current and aspiring leaders can execute on to build competency in each of the six dimensions required to bring the MLE into existence.

InfoQ: How does lean leadership compare to servant leadership?

Dahl: Lean leadership is based on servant leadership. The foundation is set by the first dimension of the Modern Lean Framework, Leading Self, that discusses the qualities you must develop to be able to lead yourself. Afterall, if your life is a mess and out of control, how do you expect others to want to follow you? I’ll answer that: they won’t, because people look for the qualities of consistency, stability, and trustworthiness to name a few, in their leaders.

Think about people who you would consider great leaders. My list includes Elon Musk, Oprah Winfrey, and Patrick Collison. They are all intrinsically motivated, pushing themselves forward to venture out of their comfort zones and experiment, risking failure to be bold and innovative in their fields, granted in different shapes and forms. However, they all have a fire burning in them and they all share the same trait of being self-led. That is, not waiting around to have someone else tell them what to do or how they need to act or behave, as they took it upon themselves to rise to the occasion and lead.   

Then we move into the second dimension, "Leading Others," which focuses on understanding that leading is about serving others, as Robert Greenleaf explained, which must be a part of the Modern Lean leader’s mindset. At Toyota, the culture is based on servant leadership and helping others to develop themselves into leaders for the good of all, as they move through their careers. Being a great leader, like anything else, takes practice.  Some of us are born with more inherent leadership abilities, but that should not ever be a deterrent to aspire to be a great leader. Everyone needs help and everyone should offer to help others as well. That is the basis that both Modern Lean Leadership and Servant Leadership are based on. If you need help, seek out a mentor/coach (or as the Japanese call them, a Sensei) and if you want to serve, seek out those who you can help along the way.  

InfoQ: What does Modern Lean Leadership look like in the context of Modern Lean?

Dahl: The Modern Lean Framework is the blueprint Modern Lean leaders can use to  develop leadership abilities within themselves and others, as well as building the 21st century digital organization through practicing continuous improvement and evolution. Now more than ever, the world needs leaders that can effectively operate within and amongst the six equally important dimensions of this framework. Your journey as a Modern Lean leader begins with learning to lead yourself first and foremost. You must develop the characteristics that people look for in leaders so that they will feel comfortable following you. Then, you are ready to lead others by serving and helping them to also develop as leaders. As leaders, we must support those who also want to become leaders on their journey so that we are constantly growing the next generation of leaders through service to others.

The third dimension, "Leading Outside-in," places the focus of all you do on fulfilling the unmet wants, needs, and/or desires of your customers. The MLE exists because of your customers and everything you do in the pursuit of perfection must tie back to your customer, through the strategic objectives you set within the fourth dimension, "Leading Enterprise Wide." The objectives, along with the key results you are after, must be aligned to the products and services you create for your customers. Otherwise, you are creating waste, which must be removed in the MLE. And, a big part of this equation is constant and calculated innovation characterized by the 5th dimension, "Leading Innovation." And finally, your culture plays an important role in ensuring all the dimensions are supported within the MLE as it evolves and strives for continuous learning and improvement, as leaders perpetually grow and collect feedback as they cycle over and over again through this loop. So, keep in mind that this is not a one and done process. It is a journey that, once you embark on, will never end.  

About four years ago, I came across a young woman who was looking for guidance in her career. She was intelligent, well-educated, and self-motivated, but was a little unsure as to how she could venture out of her comfort zone and make her mark on the world. After hearing me speak at a company function, she asked if I would mentor her, because she had set some goals for herself that she needed help with to accomplish. Specifically, within the next five years, she wanted to become a technical manager, which was a very ambitious goal indeed. For the next six months or so, I helped her build a plan, offered encouragement, and listened as she sought out my council and updated me on her progress. This spring, I received a note from her saying I was the first person she wanted to tell that she had just been promoted to technical manager of her group, a whole year earlier than what she had been working toward. Of course I was ecstatic and very proud of her for achieving her goal. She completely understood the connection she needed to make between developing her leadership abilities, as well as understanding the processes and technology needed to reach her goals. And, she had aligned those goals with that of the company’s and was leading with a disruptive mind to ensure she was constantly innovating and moving forward, creating a culture of continuous improvement for herself, her teammates, and her company. That is the true power of the Modern Lean Framework at work!    

InfoQ: How does digitization impact the way companies interact with their customers?

Dahl: Digitization has made the world a much smaller place. The "Internet of Things" (IoT) has erased the physical boundaries that once inhibited the global exchange of products and services. This shift has caused Modern Lean leaders to rethink things like their business models, marketing strategies, and distribution channels. Nowadays, an Omnichannel Customer Experience Strategy (OCXS) is a must, which takes into consideration both how and where you will market your products and services to different customer segments (known as personas) and what channels you will use to reach them.

For example, I recently worked with a large US-based bank to restructure their product operating model. We identified five major product lines that represented all the product and service capabilities they offered to their customers, which included Checking, Savings, Loans, Credit Cards, and Investments. These product lines seemed simple and straightforward, but then when you identified the customers for each, we began to see differences in how the bank would interact with each across unique channels. For instance, think of the difference in a student who is opening a checking account for the first time, versus a business owner who needs a commercial checking account. The student may prefer to open the account online, use a debit card a lot, and never step foot into one of the bank’s branches, doing all their business online. On the other hand, the business person is going to want to establish a relationship with the bank, so a branch visit to open the account would be his/her preferred method and a lot of checks would probably be written on the account, as well as making in-person deposits on a daily basis at the branch via a teller or drive-through at night. So, we determined that we’d also need classifications for the product lines that would roll up to different business units, such as commercial, retail, and institutional. Then, we melded in all of the bank’s customer interaction channels, such as online, branch, and call-in support center to name a few, and formed the OCXS for each BU. In this manner, we were able to build a holistic and consistent customer experience strategy across all of the ways the bank interacted with them.  

InfoQ: What's needed for companies to become successful in innovation?

Dahl: In order for companies to succeed at innovation, Modern Lean leaders must think with a disruptive mind and constantly be on the lookout for opportunities to be disruptive in their industries and marketplaces. They must become the instruments of change, because being disruptive must come from a proactive stance. If you are waiting around to see what your competition is doing, by the time you can actually see the end result of their efforts, it will be too late to react to the disruption they have created. By keeping an eye not only on your competitors, but also industry and market trends, and economic, social, political, and environmental conditions, you can stay ahead of the curve and be the disruptor, instead of being disrupted.

Recently, I worked with a CIO who realized his industry was ripe for disruption and that it would only be a matter of time before some startup would step in and shake up the way they did business today. Unfortunately, their business operations and customer interactions really hadn’t changed much over the last 25 years and the lack of a holistic digital presence in their market was not only lacking from them, but from most of their competitors as well.  It was as though time had stood still and at some point in the near future, someone would figure that out and capitalize on this overall weakness by launching a one-stop digital platform that would revolutionize the entire industry. So, in a very proactive move, my client brought us in to help him define a new digital operating and customer experience model that would completely change how they interacted with their customers, as well as their suppliers.  This is a perfect example of being forward thinking, utilizing a disruptive mind to ensure you not only survive, but thrive in this era of digitalization.

InfoQ: What can leaders do to make culture change happen?

Dahl: The biggest thing that Modern Lean leaders can do to make cultural change happen is to understand that you can CHANGE your culture by making it outcome-driven. Many management consultants today are very quick to throw the Culture card on the table when things don’t exactly go as planned during digital transformation efforts. To me, that comes from their general lack of understanding as to what culture truly is and how it is formed, changes, and evolves by taking on a life of its own as the company moves forward. In the beginning, culture is usually initially set by the founder or owner. Or in other words, from the top! As it moves forward, it evolves and changes as new leaders are brought in, based on what they both do and don’t do over time, what they believe in and value, how they behave, and what actions they take as the people within the organization observing all of these things greatly affects the culture of the organization. The old saying, "Do as I say and not as I do," will not create a Lean culture if those two pieces of the culture equation are out of sync. Modern Lean leaders always lead by example.  

In "Chapter 8, Leading Culture," I describe two major ingredients you will need to change your culture. First, you must understand the cultural elements and aspects that are currently at play inside of your organization. That is, you must work to identify its cultural beliefs, values, behaviors, and actions at play. Then, you must take conscious steps to move it towards the future state that you want to exist, by executing the "Eight Steps to Culture Change." These steps allow you to purposefully redirect and build the culture that will support and evolve your MLE toward its Enterprise True North, bringing your mission and vision into a reality that fulfills your value proposition. So, the next time you hear a consultant say they can’t change your culture, they are correct, because only the people inside of your organization can! However, if they know what they are doing, they can help you to facilitate the process, because change only "sticks" when the people most impacted and closest to it have a say in how you go about making those changes. That is the only way to achieve any kind of lasting and sustainable change.  

InfoQ: How can leaders measure and improve their own leadership qualities?

Dahl: In "Chapter 9, Becoming a Self-Led Leader," of Leading Lean, I describe nine steps, known as the Modern Lean Leader’s Self-Development process, based on the PDCA cycle that you can use to develop your leadership abilities. However, you must go into this effort with your eyes wide open, because this is a lifelong personal journey. As Norman Vincinet Peale once said, "We are all human becomings!" That is we are all continuously evolving whether you realize it or not. And actually, there is nothing constant but change itself. This nine-step process leads you through first setting your personal Objectives and Key Results (OKRs), as my mentee did in the story above, which is 1 through 6 Plan steps. Then, you will get to work on accomplishing them (Step 7 - Do), measure your results (Step 8 - Check), and then evolve and optimize (Step 9 - Act) what worked and recognize what needs to change next time around.

Overall, the process of personal evolution, like that of the MLE, is not a one-and-done process. Committing to becoming a leader is probably the "road less traveled" compared to your peers. However, I have found that it is a very gratifying and rewarding one, and once you begin, your successes will propel you forward and you’ll find yourself yearning to fail, because you learn and grow through these fast feedback cycles as you stretch yourself. The fastest road to success is always when opportunity meets preparedness. I know that sounds odd, but go ahead and give it a try. I am positive it won’t take you long to see the wisdom in that statement. Some call it luck. I call it leadership!  

InfoQ: What's your advice to leaders who want to become a Modern Lean leader?

Dahl: My advice would be to get going! There is no time like the present and regardless of the degree of your natural born leadership abilities, I believe anyone can become a leader. However, it takes you expending the effort, putting yourself out there, taking risks and possibly failing and learning from your experiences. Then getting up, dusting yourself off, and trying again as you move yourself forward. I’ve experienced a lot of success in my life, but I’ve also had my share of failures as well.  The key to becoming a great leader is how you view adversity and the failures you experience, because if you are not risking and stretching yourself, you are not learning and growing. There is no room in a Modern Lean leader’s repertory for self-doubt, and learning this process will not be an easy one, but I encourage you to keep going. It is well worth the effort from both a personal and professional perspective.

Also, keep in mind that Leading Lean is there to help you realize your goals. All you have to do is pick it up and make a commitment to become the best possible leader you are capable of.  And remember, it takes a village, so build your support system so that you are not alone when things don’t go exactly as planned. Realize and anticipate that adjustments will need to be made along your journey.  So, my parting words to you are, "Always be agile and stay Lean, my friend!" Because that is the key to becoming a great Modern Lean leader.

About the Book Author

Jean Dahl is a collaborative, outcomes-driven senior executive, author, recognized thought leader, speaker, and serial entrepreneur who is passionate about building adaptive and responsive Modern Lean leaders and enterprises that harness change to achieve greater and greater levels of agility. She regularly consults and advises her clients, ranging from Lean Startups to corporate giants, to first and foremost, focus on stakeholder value to identify and respond to disruption in innovative new ways through continuous improvement, learning, and evolution to thrive in our 21st century global economy. Ms. Dahl is also the author of two books on leadership: Leading Lean:  Ensuring Success and Developing a Framework for Leadership (O’Reilly Media, 2019) and The Making of an Agile Leader (O’Reilly Media, 2018), as well as the founder and executive director of the Modern Lean Institute, a nonprofit organization devoted to helping the world develop and support Modern Lean leaders. She can be reached directly through Linkedin.

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