TRAITS AND COMPETENCIES OF LEAN LEADER
By N Gopalkrishan


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Often it is observed that the KAIZEN™ or Lean initiative loses its steam and at times, is termed as a failure too! If one goes through this in detail, it would be clear that, almost in 50% of the cases, the failure of such initiatives is attributed to lack of leadership drive. Improvements can never be bought. Few leaders think that just by hiring external consultants, things would change, however, they do not realize that if sustenance is required, leaders have to pitch in. Thus, it is pivotal to develop Lean Leaders or KAIZEN™ leaders. This requires lots of time and more amount of work.

Are Lean Leaders being different from Normal Leaders? If yes, How? What are the special or additional competencies a Lean Leader must have? Many scholars have written down multiple articles on this. Lots of methodologies were suggested - “My way – Your Way – Follow me – Doing together – Practicality – Applicability – Go & See – Asking Whys – Respecting Individuals” and the list goes on!

With my little experience and exposure to this initiative, I would like to share the competencies or traits which I feel important for Lean Leaders. Prior to that, let us find out the difference between a trait and a competency.

  • A "skill" is defined as the ability emerging out of one's knowledge, practice and aptitude to excel
  • A "trait" is depicted as a distinguishing characteristic (Characteristic refers to a unique feature or quality), especially of one's personal nature
  • And "competence" has to do with the ability to execute tasks successfully or efficiently with possession of required skill, knowledge, qualification or capacity.


The differences are subtle. While the traits pertain to more personal, competency is bent on qualifications or capabilities to perform a task.

The 8 key competencies required for a Lean Leader or KAIZEN™ Leader that comes to my mind are:


  • Setting Direction - Having a vision for KMS (KAIZEN™ Management System) with guiding principles KCM (KAIZEN™ Change Module), specific goals and a plan for implementing the KMS
  • Adapt, Manage & Steer Change - Promotes innovation and enlists others in generating, initiating and sustaining change
  • Harnessing Collaboration - Reaches out and establishes mutual expectations and cooperation with peers, customers, suppliers & all stake-holders
  • Standardizing & Improving Work-Processes - Ensures the leadership roles are standardized as to support flow of information & material in KAIZEN™ way
  • Coaching - Engages & educates employees in line with KAIZENT™ Kata & Coaching Kata
  • Empower - Delegates responsibilities along with the authority necessary for success
  • Inculcate Accountability - Establishes Process & Result KPIs and develops process ownership by holding all accountable though Daily KAIZEN™
  • Building KAIZEN™ Culture - Champion OE operations by using KAIZEN™ thinking, language, tools in day-to-day interactions through Nichijo Kanri


There could be many more such special competencies required to be a KAIZEN™ leader, however, these 8 are pivotal. Let us look at the traits now

Conviction in the Journey:

We all are aware that KAIZEN™ or Lean is a culture. To become a practitioner of KAIZEN™, one must undergo a cultural transformation. In short, KAIZEN™ is a journey towards perfection; a journey towards achieving perfection in the processes. We may not catch up with perfection in our life time, however, in the journey of seeking perfection, we will achieve Excellence. Hence, at times, this is also termed as a journey towards excellence.

One cannot start a journey without knowing the destination. KAIZEN™ should always remain an integral part of the overall business strategy. It is meaningful that only after identifying ‘True North’ (our Goals based on our Vision) and understanding the purpose of the journey, the Organization can determine on how to apply KAIZEN™ as to perform better and increase value to their customers. While setting the direction is one key trait, ability to perform Hansei (reflection) is another important trait a Lean Leader must have. Hansei enables them to learn from the mistakes made and creating opportunities to move forward in the journey towards perfection.

Customer Oriented:

The purpose of any business is Customer. Unless one identifies the customer’s requirement, it would not be clear on where to focus efforts towards improvement. The ultimate measure would be On Time, Delivered In Full and Error-free. This encapsulates all processes and the team should be ready to solve all the problems that come up on real-time basis.

Servant Leadership (People Oriented):

Acharya Chanakya would not have been so familiar if he was not Authentic, Upstanding & Respectful. Servant leadership is all about that – leadership with humility! Leaders have to assertive and not aggressive. We are aware that the key role of the KAIZEN™ Leader is to be a coach and a people developer; Hence, they must lead by example. To lead by example is possible only if the leaders are genuine. Developing people means developing people to root-cause problem solvers.

Striving for Perfection (Process Oriented):

Challenging the status quo is the very essence of KAIZEN™. Good enough is never enough! No process is perfect and a leader should always be looking for a process where perfection is required. Perfection is possible only when a leader is observant. For this, one must spend adequate time in the Gemba. Striving for perfection does not imply that we must make the processes complicated. Simplicity is the key. The Leader needs to have a daily routine of Simplification and develop an eye for finding waste.

Go to Gemba (Gemba Oriented):

Gemba is where value is added, and problems are resolved. Hence one must be Gemba-oriented, and Leaders should make it a point to spend adequate time at the Gemba. Spending time at Gemba means leaders provide coaching to the teams, challenging the minds of the teams and also looking for areas of improvement in the processes. The critical behaviours of Active questioning and active Listening are essential to do the Gemba Walks.

As obvious, these competencies and traits are not so exhaustive however, they capture the essentials required to be a KAIZEN™ Leader. As we see, these are different from the qualities required for a general leader. While they are essential, these should be additional requirements to be a KAIZEN™ or Lean Leader. The most important aspect is, leaders must build a culture of KAIZEN™ or Lean by themselves adhering to the KAIZEN™ principles daily.

To meet and learn from Gopalkrishnan about KAIZEN™ be at the 10th Annual Indizen 2019 (KAIZEN™ Congress India). www.kaizencongressindia.com/tickets

About Author:

N. Gopalkrishnan has hands on experience in implementation of Kaizen practices for 10+ years.

As a consultant of Kaizen Institute, he has independently led several transformational projects in various companies in India and Africa.

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