Poor performance? The problem is you! (A review of Lead with respect)

“The problem is you”, is the honest response of a senior manager when a supplier’s CEO asks more time to solve a quality issue. He continues: “I don’t mean you as in the company. I mean you personally. You’re the senior manager here”…. This is the intriguing start of a business novel on lean leadership. Here is my brief review of Lead with Respect: a Novel of Lean Practice by Michael Ballé and Freddy Ballé.

Few business novels about operations management

There are not many business novels in the operations management area. One reason is perhaps that they are not easy to write; the author would need a fundamental understanding of technical operations, have extraordinary fiction writing skills, and, most importantly, bring something new and interesting to the table. Eli Goldratt’s The Goal: Excellence in Manufacturing from 1984 still remains the yardstick novel in operations management (covered in this post). But over the last years, a few other interesting novels have hit the bookshelves. In particular, I think the fiction books by Michael Ballé and Freddy Ballé (son and father) have something to offer.

The Ballé’s have authored a trilogy of business novels, all published by the Lean Enterprise Institute (LEI). The first one, The Gold Mine (2005), told the story of a lean turnaround in an electronics company, and introduces the reader to lean and all the basic lean principles in an amusing and exciting way. The second one, The Lean Manager (2009), continues the story of The Gold Mine and shows how managers stand at the center stage of any lean transformation. The latest novel, Lead with respect (2014), describes how a software company regains its competitive edge and customers’ trust through the application of lean thinking. All three novels are essentially stressing the importance of the soft side of lean – the role of the leader in lean turnarounds.

Seven management practices of Lead with respect

In the novel we learn that “lead with respect” is a management model comprised of seven practices (see illustration). Notably, the authors stress that leading with respect is a set of practices, not a “principle”, because lean is about action.

Lead with respect_lean leadership_BalleThe seven practices of Lead with Respect (published with consent of M. Ballé)

The first management practice is Go and see. Go and see how the situation is where people create value for the customer. The second practice is to always challenge the current state with the objective of improvement. The key is to challenge other people, not provide all the “solutions” yourself. Third, listen is about seeing the world through the eyes of the workers, which requires a real interest in the individual. The fourth practice is to teach problem solving so that everyone is capable of analyzing and solving their own problems. And don’t forget to provide the workers time and support for problem solving too—which is the fifth practice. The sixth practice is teamwork, which means developing individual skills in working with others. Finally, the seventh management practice is to learn. There is no continuous improvement without continuous learning. Managers must start with themselves and crave learning and self-development opportunities.

Top quotes from Lead with respect

Lead with respect provides helpful advice along the same lines as do Jeffrey Liker & Gary Convis’ The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership (2011) and Mike Rother’s Toyota Kata (2010)(see this post). In addition, Lead with respect is a candy bag of quotes for any manager leading a lean transformation. Many of the dialogues between the characters in the novel get you thinking and many should motivate immediate action in whatever organization you work for. I have cherry-picked a dozen of the best quotes from the novel. Together these quotes reveal quite a lot about what lead with respect (or “lean leadership”, if you want) is about:

  1. “The key to satisfied customers is satisfied employees” (p. 26)
  2. “Our jobs as managers is to create conditions where people can be successful in their jobs” (p. 41)
  3. “Problems first is the basic attitude that underlies our success” (p. 58)
  4. “We’re not dealing with everybody. We’re dealing with this problem, here and now” (p. 67)
  5. “Teach people to solve their own problems” (p. 107)
  6. “The basics of lead with respect: Stand in their shoes and look through their eyes” (p. 62)
  7. “You’ve got to make the difference between normal and abnormal easy to see—make it obvious” (p. 81)
  8. “Without standards, it’s hard to see problems clearly, and without problem solving, standards are not taken seriously” (p. 193)
  9. “The standard is the best-known way to work right now, but we respect the fact that people may have valid reasons to do it differently” (p. 153)
  10. “The point is that we have rules and regulations, which are important, but every person is an individual in a unique situation. Practicing respect means making an effort to understand both personality and circumstances” (p. 133)
  11. “If you try to implement ‘improved processes’ without building people’s capabilities, you’ll just create more broken processes” (p. 103)
  12. “The problem is you!” (p. 1; p. 204)

For the context and further explanation of these quotes (and many others), get your hands on the novel Lead with Respect. As with any fiction work, the reader should of course reflect on the external validity of the arguments and the story. It is not research and never pretends to be either. Yet, the story in the book has a fair face validity and arguments flow logically for the most. It certainly both reads well and ends well.

I recommend Lead with Respect.

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