Lead With Respect: A Novel of Lean Practice by Freddy Ballé and Michael Ballé is the one book on lean that I will recommend this year to anyone who asks. I am not a fan of the business novel. There is already enough fiction in most business books. Adding plot to them does little to inform and enlighten. This book is the rare exception.
The book follows a software company CEO’s learning journey as her customer imparts to her the essence of lean management, or “leading with respect”. This includes how to develop people, processes and profitability following daily a set of seven behaviors. In order to fulfill customer requirements and not lose the business, the CEO must follow an action plan. Here is one of my favorite lines from the book, which I expect to use in some modified form in the future:
The action plan is not about the software. The action plan is really a test of our commitment to work with them.
The novel format is effective in conveying the subject matter thanks to the teacher-student interaction. The novel format allows insight into the mind of the student, their doubts and the evolution of their awareness of what it means to lead with respect. Through gemba visits, explanation of lean practices such as suggestion systems, catch ball, A3, and the sometimes skeptical questioning by the learner, the authors illustrate a convincing learning experience. Many of us will be able to relate.
During these various student-teacher deep-dive exchanges on various practices (what some may call “lean tools”) there are many great nuggets such as the list below, on supporting problem solving. A leader should be:
– Specific about the problem
– Insightful about the cause
– Clever about the countermeasure
– Open minded about who else is concerned
– Rigorous about status checks
Partially due to continuity of the characters from previous Ballé novels, the book relies on factory examples of lean tools and practices. But the authors deftly avoid any sense that these ideas are being force-fit to software development. Instead, the book shows how the software company CEO at first struggles and then succeeds in bridging the gap between leading within the context of shipping manufactured goods and leading within the context of building and shipping code. Leaders from hospitals, governments, banks, warehouses, restaurants will no doubt find their own enlightenment, just as the software CEO marveled at how the factory “improved delivery with grubby whiteboards, just by defining success, and committing to kaizen.”
An important idea that is repeated in the book is the following:
I’m the problem and so is my management team. Employees rarely are–they just want to get on with doing their job well. And yet we invent so many hurdles for them to overcome … how can they possibly succeed?
The act of leading with respect asks a lot of the lean leader, in terms of qualities of humility, self-awareness, dedication to continual learning. It demands leadership from the ground-up, clearly defining normal and abnormal, learning to seek out and to recognize problems, and requiring kaizen as part of everyone’s job. The book offers a recipe that anyone can practice, but many will find these difficult or contrary to familiar leadership qualities.
If anything could be improved about this book, ironically, it is the fiction writing. The narrative lacks a central tension that makes us want to turn the page, to find out what happens next to the characters. There is limited character development or depth. For the reader picking up only this Ballé book, it may be difficult to care about the main character, or to understand references to character histories which extend back through previous books. But the strong dialogue and exchange of ideas between characters keeps the story moving. What the book may lack in plot, setting and character development, it more than makes up in concision.
The leader who will truly benefit from the practical wisdom in this book must eventually embrace the notion that results come from people, improving results requires improving people, improving people requires improving oneself, which begins by making human connections, and this in turn requires respect. This line from the book should be the mantra of the committed lean leader:
But yes, the problem is me. My ability to get outstanding results is limited by my capacity to learn, and one can only learn in the context of good relationships. Every one, every day!
This book is immediately accessible by readers at all stages of lean learning, all sectors and all levels of leadership. Everything that needs to be said about lean leadership has been said, in Lead With Respect. I encourage you to read, reflect and practice.