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Updated: Jun 13, 2023

by John Dyer

Old joke: “When describing a ham and egg breakfast, the chicken was involved… the pig was committed”.

Before writing my book “The Façade of Excellence: Defining a New Normal of Leadership,” I went on-line and asked a simple question: “In one or two words, what is the main ingredient to sustain and expand an improvement initiative?” After receiving more than 100,000 interactions, the following word cloud was created (size of word equals number of responses):

By far, the top two words were “Leadership” and “Commitment.” Over my career, I have had the opportunity to work with over four dozen organizations of various sizes and types (manufacturing, government, and non-profits) and it has become fairly easy to predict the degree of success with the implementation of a team based, continuous improvement effort (such as lean and Six Sigma) based on the level of commitment of the top leaders. The highest probability of success is the fully “committed” leader (the Pig) followed by the somewhat successful “involved” leader (the Chicken) and at the bottom is the “passive” leader (we will refer to these as the Sheep). What do each of these levels of leadership commitment look like and what is their impact when trying to implement lean?

The Pig – Fully Committed to Change Anything Standing in the Way of Success… Even Themselves

Several times I have been asked this question by a top executive; “What do I need to do different in order to support our lean implementation?” My response; “How far are you willing to change the culture, organization structure, metrics, and your own leadership style?” This is quickly followed by “And will the Board of Directors or owners (or anyone else higher up the chain) support these changes?” A handful of these leaders have answered (and truly meant) “Everything is on the table as long as it helps us achieve excellence in the eyes of our customers, shareholders, and employees.”

The changes required to fully implement any team based, continuous improvement initiative will require the breaking of many paradigms that have been established over the past several decades. For example, the old traditional functional organizational structure promotes silos that inhibit team work across the organization. Imagine going to a Focus Factory type structure where representatives from each function (procurement, scheduling, operations, Engineering, etc.) are solid line reporting to a team leader and dotted line to their function. These team members would succeed or fail together and would learn to operate a portion of the organization as their own business.

Metrics are another area that would need to be looked at through the prism of “does this help or hinder our improvement efforts?” For example, employee and equipment utilization is 180 degrees opposite of supporting lean. These metrics drive the building of inventory that may not be needed (one of the wastes). Supportive metrics would be team based and focus on improving safety, quality, and linearity (the making of what is on the schedule each day… no more and no less).

The most important changes, however, would involve the leaders themselves. Redefining a “promotable” leader will be the hardest change to make. In a team based, continuous improvement culture, the most promotable person is not the one who puts out fires or is the best at hiding problems or works 12 hours each day or shows the world how much they control what is happening in their domain. The new definition of a promotable leader will need to shift dramatically to support those who set positive, inspirational visions, coaches, trains, and supports the teams, has empathy for all of the workers, and understands that “bad systems will beat good people every time (Dr. Deming).”

If a leader (and the entire support structure) is willing to make these changes, there is no limit to what the organization can accomplish.

The Chicken – Involved But Not Committed

All of the stars need to align in order for a leader to fully commit themselves. If a single person at the top of the chain refuses to support a leader, then they will never be comfortable fully committing. If this is the case, the leaders can, at the very least, be the chicken… willing to support and be involved in the improvement initiatives. What does being fully involved look like?

Hopefully, all of the leaders in an organization are willing to go through the same training as every other team member. This requires full engagement (no laptops/cell phones), active participation, and a willingness to learn. Every other participant will be paying particular attention to the leader’s body language, comments, and level of participation and this will have a significant impact on the success or failure of the improvement initiative. Involved leaders need to schedule at least an hour every day to engage with the employees, walk the various processes, and offer ways they might be able to support the improvement efforts. By going through the training, they will be able to speak the same language of lean and Six Sigma and offer advice on tools, data, methodologies, etc. Over time, this will cement, in the minds of all team members, that the improvement focus is a long term strategy and will not be going away any time soon. At Toyota, for example, every employee (including all of the leaders) is expected to participate in a week long improvement event every year. This sends a strong message that the leaders will be involved at all times.

Of course, in this scenario, all it takes is for an involved leader to leave and be replaced by a sheep and the entire initiative falls apart.

The Sheep – Scared to Leave the Pack of Their Peers

Sheep follow the crowd and do what is necessary to survive. I have come across some leaders who would best be described as sheep. Somewhere along the way, they heard about lean and Six Sigma and decide to do the bare minimum in order to check the box that they are following in the footsteps of the “great” companies. Or, they allow employees who work deep in the bowels of the organization to experiment with some of the lean tools in order to promote harmony. However, when it comes time to make investments (time, resources, training, equipment, etc.), they begin to worry that the return on investment will not be sufficient and everything gets shut down.

Another version of the sheep is the “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” I have seen the following scenario play out multiple times in my improvement experience:

A Director of Operations was hired from outside of the organization. He came from an industry that had been doing lean and Six Sigma for several years and had personally experienced the positive impact in all facets of the business (increases in profits, customer satisfaction, safety, quality, throughput, and employee happiness). He decided to personally train all 250 employees and was fully committed to changing the entire culture (in this scenario, he was the Pig). His boss, the VP of the division, did not know much about lean and Six Sigma but decided to not stand in the way of the changes as long as he did not need to personally be involved (the Sheep). It did not take long for the improvements to begin to show up in the metrics and the rumor mill began to whisper about how this leader of operations would soon be the next VP.

One day, the Director and his team made a presentation to the CEO highlighting all of the changes, improvements, and positive directions of their key metrics. They were expecting this to be a celebration. Part way through the presentation, however, his boss, the VP, stood up and shouted “this lean stuff isn’t real… it is just a bunch of smoke and mirrors! I don’t believe anything you and your team are presenting today and we need to shut these lies down immediately.” The Director of Operations was soon fired and everything reverted back to the way things used to be (the Wolf in sheep’s clothing).

Most lean failures can be traced back to a leader who is a sheep or a boss who is a wolf.

Another question I get asked quite often is “There is so much evidence that team based, continuous improvement (such as lean and Six Sigma) has a profound impact on profit, customer satisfaction, and employee morale… why aren’t all organizations embracing this journey?” My answer… we need more Pigs in leadership roles.


John Dyer is an author, coach, and trainer with 38 years of experience in the field of improving processes. His recently published book “the Façade of Excellence; Defining a New Normal of Leadership” examines the four leadership styles required to move an organization’s culture to one of trust, collaboration, and teamwork. John started his career with General Electric and then worked for Ingersoll-Rand before starting his own consulting company. He has had the opportunity to study with the leaders in the continuous improvement field such as Dr. W. Edwards Deming, Brian Joiner, and Stephen Covey.

John has an Electrical Engineering degree from Tennessee Technological University as well as an international Master's of Business from Purdue University and the University of Rouen in France. He is a contributing Editor for IndustryWeek magazine and a judge in their annual “Best Plants” contest.

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