We often focus on the tools and the visible elements of what makes a lean organization successful, but fundamentally the essence of lean is not about tools or projects. It’s about creating a culture of learning by putting people first and focusing on principes about how to learn more effectively and solve problems more quickly.
The Only Secret Is An Attitude Towards Learning
In 2014, I had the fortune of meeting retired 40-year Toyota leader Isao Yoshino just six months before my family moved to Japan for a life changing 18-month assignment. In our early conversations when I first moved to Japan, I would ask Mr. Yoshino what was the secret to Toyota’s success. After many months of saying “there is no secret,” he finally admitted that “the only secret to Toyota is its attitude towards learning.”
The “secret” is learning to lead to create an organization where individuals at all levels of an organization are learning and improving on a daily basis.
Learning to Lead
Through six years of conversations since Mr. Yoshino and I first met, my understanding of people-centered leadership and how to create a culture of learning has deepened. I offer these lessons for you in the book Learning to Lead, Leading to Learn: Lessons from Toyota Leader Isao Yoshino on a Lifetime of Continuous Learning and highlight the key themes for you here.
The first time I met Mr. Yoshino was while he was on stage at a conference talking about his role as a leader at Toyota. At that time he made the first of many comments that struck me as profound:
“My aim as a manager was to develop John by giving him a mission or target, and to support him while he figured out how to achieve the target. And as I was developing John, I was aware that I was developing myself as well.”In this one statement, Mr. Yoshino summed up what I now consider to be the fundamentals of people-centered leadership and what I call the Leading to Learn Framework.
A leader’s purpose is to:
1 - set the direction
2 - provide support
3 - develop yourself
This is a powerful framework – simple in concept, but more challenging in practice – for what it means to lead to help your people, yourself, and your organization learn, grow, and achieve.
Set the Direction
Without knowing what direction to focus on or without a clear target, teams cannot be aligned in their actions. Without a target, there can be no plan to achieve it. Strategies help show the way to close a gap between where we need to go (the target) and where we are today. The target sets the direction.
Set “seemingly impossible” targets that are not immediately obvious of how to achieve. This will challenge you and your teams to think innovatively and to learn from continuous cycles of improvement (and failure) along the way to achieve it.
While the direction you set -- or the challenge you establish -- doesn’t need to be immediately precise or prescriptive, it does need to be intentional and focused.
How much time have you taken to clarify your team’s or organization’s direction?
Being a leader means helping others learn how to solve problems – how to achieve the needed targets and challenges. It doesn’t mean owning the thinking, but it means owning the creation of the conditions for learning and setting up a work environment that is safe and conducive to your people to do their best. This means asking more questions, listening more effectively, providing space to learn, and welcoming people to bring forward problems.
The Balance Between Challenge and Support
Setting a challenge and providing support are like the yin and yang of people-centered leadership.
If a leader only pushes toward a challenge, but does not provide the necessary support to their people in achieving it -- including learning from setbacks and failures -- the team may become frustrated, disengaged, or even quit. Similarly, if a leader provides lots of activity focused on caring for their team but does so without a direction that they are heading toward, the team may spend a lot of energy on initiatives not aligned with the needed outcomes.
Setting a challenge while providing support helps your people grow in confidence and capability – and achieve the necessary business objectives.
And finally, being a people-centered leader requires humility to accept that you are not perfect, that you don’t have all the answers, and that you too need to always grow and learn more to improve yourself as a leader and a learner.
Consider the following questions: How can you hold up the mirror to your own strengths and opportunities for improvement? How can you more effectively set direction? How can you more effectively help others grow and be successful?
Lead with Intention
Intention is about understanding your purpose and aligning your actions to fulfill that purpose. Reflect on the purpose of a leader and ask yourself what actions you can take to provide both direction and support – so that you and your team grow together and achieve your goals. How can you be the kind of leader that allows your team to take risks while you take responsibility in creating the conditions for their learning and success? In doing so, you build trust, camaraderie, and a lifetime of learning opportunities along the way.
This is how you create a culture of learning.
More Resources To Support Your Practice Of Intention And People-centered Leadership:
- Read the bestselling book that I wrote in collaboration with Isao Yoshino: Learning to Lead, Leading to Learn
- Explore and reflect on the exercises in the Learning to Lead, Leading to Learn Workbook to deepen your understanding and practice of the Leading to Learn framework.
- Read this article and watch the video: The Real Meaning of Kaizen
- Join the Lean Construction Blog webinar on May 12 - 3 Leadership Practices to Create a People-Centered Culture of Learning. You’ll explore the Leading to Learn framework for leadership and understand the importance of intention and reflection in creating learning and developing people. You will walk away with three tangible practices that you can integrate immediately and will set your intention for your ongoing improvement as a people-centered leader and coach.