What is “Leadership Commitment?”

I have seen this topic come up in forums many times, and seen wide ranging responses. If I were to summarize them all, it would be “I’ll know it when I see it.”

A couple of weeks ago I heard a great quote from a co-worker that puts things into perspective.

I’m always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught.

Winston Churchill

And therein lies the crux of the issue, because at its heart, the Toyota Production System emerges as the leadership applies a specific set of mindsets, practices and skills to every decision, every problem, every opportunity.

Few leaders who have reached senior positions in any company outside of Toyota have acquired those mindsets, practices and skills, and fewer still rigorously apply them. This isn’t anyone’s fault.  They simply came up in a totally different context.

Worse yet, they have been taught that “leadership commitment” means “deciding, budgeting and checking on status.” Thus, many companies have leaders who fully believe they exhibit complete “commitment to lean” when, in reality, it is just another initiative or program – managed like a new product development might be.

The process outlined in Mike Rother’s book, Toyota Kata, is one of learning these skills. And I would contend (as I believe Rother is contending) that unless these skills are being actively and deliberately learned and applied, no mater what else you are doing, it isn’t “lean.” (or, if you want to quibble about the definition of “lean,” it isn’t the Toyota Production System.)

Now we are at a core issue. While it is possible to learn these skills, mindsets and practices on one’s own, it is extraordinarily difficult. That isn’t because there is anything particularly difficult about these practices. But most people, if they truly want to learn something new, have someone to teach them.

If that senior executive wants to improve his golf score, he hires a pro to give him lessons, because it is an individual skill.

The skills we are talking about are also individual skills, further complicated by the fact that they are individual skills for interaction with others.

So what is “leadership commitment?” Is it a commitment to learn these skills?

Actually, I would contend that is not enough. My current working definition is one which overcomes Churchill’s reluctance. It is an acknowledgment that, not only is there something which must be personally learned, but that someone must be found to teach it.

Leadership commitment is demonstrated by the willingness to be taught.

If you think about it, every “business novel” out there follows this same format – a leader is confronted with a problem, realizes he cannot solve it with his current skill set, and another character emerges to teach those skills to him.

What are your thoughts? I am interested less in paragraphs and more in alternative short definitions.

7 Replies to “What is “Leadership Commitment?””

  1. I think a company’s DNA can affect the definition of leadership commitment.

    To me leadership commitment means being dedicated to and supportive of Lean initiates.

    I need the dedication and constant involvement of front line supervisors in day to day Lean implementation. However, I don’t need the constant involvement of upper management, but I do need their support.

    1. What is the tipping point when the “day to day lean implementation” shifts to a fundamental culture change in the way the company is managed from top to bottom?
      Or is there one in your mind?

  2. Mark:

    You are so very perceptive and smart with this lean improvement stuff. You never cease to amaze me. You caught me being very short sighted.

    It’s been very difficult to get the ownership of my company to change and to focus in on Lean. However, they have been “supportive”. I have been making some progress without their involvement and I was showing them the benefits. But that will go only go so far. It’s been two years and I’m probably at or past the tipping point.

  3. I fully agree with Mark’s points and the advice offered by Mike Rother in his recent book. Let me for once (mark you calendars) take an opposing view.

    It’s easy to preach lean over mass production, long term results over short term gains, teaching and coaching over command and control. But if you’re a publicly held company, most of that gets thrown out the window when you announce your quarterly results. The stock market is a powerful influence over the way many executives act.

    In a number of companies I’ve worked with, I’ve found an interesting problem. The ones (executives) who need to change their behaviors the most are the first ones to tell you that they don’t need to change. (Everybody else does though.) This has led to a number of really good leadership training programs gathering cobwebs on my shelf. Sigh.

  4. Mark, Thank you the question because it made me realize that I use the word ‘commitment’ a lot without making as explicit as could be what exactly is expected.
    In my humble opinion leadership commitment is:
    (1) To behave (= do) in line with the ideal (genchi genbutsu, problem solving, develop people under his/her responsibility, customer-first, team work), OR
    (2) The intention to do so. In this case it is the job of a colleague / coach to show deviation between the expected behaviour and the actual behaviour in order the manager can learn. This requires the manager to be willing to learn – which brings us back to the first point because that’s of course one of the aspects of the ideal behaviour.

  5. I believe the “willingness to be taught” must be preceded by realizing that you can not solve all your problems with your current skill set. Characters in business novels seem to pick up on this quicker than what I’ve seen in real-life. Reminds of the Buddist proverb: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

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