Lean Leadership: What Is a Lean Leader and How to Become One

Alex Novkov

Alex Novkov

Content Lead

Table of Contents:

When talking about Lean, people usually tend to focus on the process management part. However, few realize that just adopting the most emblematic management tools, such as Kanban, may not necessarily bring the desired improvement without changing the way they lead.

Now, we don't plan to bore you with all the leadership fluff. Nor do we intend to explain how leadership tactics evolved through the ages.

But if you decide to stay until the end of this article, you will be able to understand the lean leadership model, look into the lean leader's role, and identify some practices to become part of your leadership behavior.

What Is Lean Leadership?

Lean leadership is a management philosophy and approach that focuses on continuous improvement, waste reduction, and increased organizational efficiency.

It involves creating a culture of problem-solving, collaboration, and empowerment, where employees are encouraged to identify and eliminate waste, improve processes, and take ownership of their work.

Lean leaders also prioritize the development of their employees, providing training and support to help them grow and excel in their roles. Lean leadership emphasizes the value of respect for people, teamwork, and a relentless pursuit of excellence.

Why Do You Need Lean Leadership?

As a methodology, Lean is focused on providing maximum value to the customer in the most efficient way possible. Therefore, any manager who is determined to achieve this needs to put a heavy emphasis on continuous improvement.

The problem with continuous improvement is that it is difficult to sustain traditional leadership tactics that rely heavily on centralized decision-making and micro-management.

Having this in mind, it is fair to say that if you are not ready to make changes to your leadership way, you shouldn't ask your team to change the way they work.

The Lean Leadership Model Explained

The lean leadership model is based on one crucial belief - the leader's goal is to raise new leaders. To achieve this, aim to rebuild your leadership strategy around the following 5 cornerstones:

  1. Challenge
  2. Develop a continuous improvement mindset
  3. Walk the floor
  4. Facilitate teamwork
  5. Show respect

To grow, each person you are leading needs to feel challenged by their work in order to look for better ways of doing it. This won't be easy if you are a fan of micromanagement because your team will not bother to do anything outside of your instructions.

When challenged and given the liberty to seek improvement, a person can develop a Kaizen mindset focused on solving problems, not just following instructions. If we have to summarize it briefly, it is a cycle containing four steps: Plan->Do->Check->Act (PDCA). As a lean leader, you must take this by heart and involve your team in every step of the process.


To facilitate the necessary Lean environment, you must be part of the team, not a figure above it. Going on frequent walks outside of your office and communicating freely with each person will help you achieve that.

Talking about the importance of teamwork may feel like a cliche, but without it, even the most highly-motivated and skilled people will be just individuals who are extremely good at what they do but are not necessarily looking in the same direction.

Last but not least, respect for people is crucial for the success of anyone who strives to be a lean leader. Here it is important to explain that respect for people is not just about being polite to your team.

It's the acknowledgment that the people can't do the work alone. Respect for people is actually about respecting people's opinions, expertise, ability to challenge your decisions, and personal limits.

Embracing the Lean Leadership Role

The lean leader is more of a teacher than a manager. If you are determined to make the methodology work in your organization, you need to encourage your team to continuously improve both their hard and soft skills.

To make the lean leadership model work, you have to put heavy emphasis on Lean culture. Among the most important elements of which must be trust and transparency. Whether you are in a formal leadership role or not, be sure to lead by example and live by what you preach.

As a guiding figure, you need to recognize that the team, which is directly working on your product or service, can provide some of the best ideas for improvement. Be sure to encourage each person to share any ideas they might have.

This doesn't mean that you should agree to every proposal they make. However, as a coach, you shouldn't just turn down those that you don't see fit. Instead, a true lean leader must ask clarifying questions that will either help her understand the idea further or allow the person giving it to reach your conclusion by himself.


A very good tool for this is the 5 Whys method. It is quite simple to enact. You just ask the question "why" until you reach the core of any problem or idea.

Your leadership role is to allow each person to learn and experiment. Providing all the necessary educational materials is a good start, but the experience is invaluable for raising leaders from within.

At Kanbanize, we are huge fans of experimentation. Pretty much everything we do is in the form of experiments. All of them are done using the above-mentioned Kaizen mindset.

For example, our development team does a lot of experimenting when creating new product features.

They start small by creating a hypothesis regarding the need for a feature. Then, they create a minimal viable product (MVP) and release it for user testing. If there's positive feedback and we see that people are actually using the feature, we analyze the available information and start planning how to enhance the feature further to provide more value. In other words, Agile planning.

Please keep in mind that experiments can only happen naturally in a safe environment. As a lean leader, you must understand this and do everything in your power to create emotional safety for the team.

Once again, it's important to point out that you need to keep your team aligned toward reaching a common goal. An important part of the lean leadership role is helping your team see the bigger picture. If this is not the case, it's going to be easier for a person to deviate, and internal conflicts may arise.

Visualization is your greatest ally here. Using methods such as Hoshin Kanri and Portfolio Kanban, you can put light on strategic goals and break them down into multiple levels of smaller tasks. Even better, you will be able to visualize dependencies and keep everybody in the loop about how their tasks fit into the big picture.

In order to maximize the value for your customers, everyone needs to understand how it flows through your organization from conception to delivery.

Serving and Challenging: The Dual Role of a Lean Leader

As a Lean leader, balancing your organization's needs with your team members' needs is essential. The lean leader should serve their team by providing support, guidance, and development opportunities while challenging them to improve performance.

To achieve this balance, Lean leaders need to have strong communication skills and be able to listen to the needs of their team. By building trust with their team members, leaders can create a supportive environment where employees feel valued and empowered to take ownership of their work.

One way to serve your team is by providing them with the necessary tools and resources to succeed. This can include training programs, mentoring opportunities, and access to technology and equipment. Investing in your team's development shows them that you value their growth and are committed to their success.

Another critical aspect of serving your team is recognizing their hard work and contributions. This can be done through employee recognition programs, bonuses, and promotions. By acknowledging your team's efforts, you foster a positive work culture and encourage them to continue striving for excellence.

At the same time, Lean leaders must challenge their teams to go beyond their comfort zones and aim to achieve excellence. This can involve setting ambitious goals using frameworks like OKR, providing feedback, and encouraging team members to take risks and learn from their mistakes.

Challenging your team can also mean empowering them to make decisions and take ownership of their work. By giving them autonomy, you show them you trust their abilities and are confident in their skills. This can increase motivation and productivity as team members feel empowered to take on new challenges and responsibilities.

Overall, the dual role of a Lean leader is to serve and challenge their team. By finding the right balance between these two roles, leaders can create a culture of continuous improvement and drive success for their organization.

The Importance of Strategic Thinking in Lean Leadership

Influential Lean leaders understand the importance of strategic thinking. They know that to achieve long-term success, they need a clear vision and a plan to achieve their goals.

Strategic thinking is the ability to anticipate potential challenges, identify opportunities, and make informed decisions that align with the organization's goals and objectives.

Developing a Strategic Mindset for Lean Leaders

To develop a strategic mindset, Lean leaders should involve their team members in planning. By soliciting their feedback and ideas, leaders can create a sense of ownership and commitment to the plan. This approach fosters a collaborative environment where everyone's input is valued, and the team can work towards a common goal.

Lean leaders should also be aware of industry trends and changes in the market. They can anticipate potential challenges and adjust their plans by staying informed. This requires a continuous effort to gather information, analyze data, and make informed decisions that align with the organization's goals.

In addition, Lean leaders should be flexible and willing to adapt their strategies if necessary. The ability to pivot and adjust courses is critical in today's fast-paced business environment and fosters both operational and organizational agility. By maintaining a positive mindset and a commitment to continuous improvement, they can build a culture of innovation and achieve long-term success.

Another critical aspect of developing a strategic mindset is the ability to think critically. Leaders must be able to evaluate information, identify patterns, and make informed decisions that align with the organization's goals. This requires a willingness to challenge assumptions, ask questions, and seek new perspectives.

What Are the Habits of Successful Lean Leaders?

Here are the three important habits of the successful lean leader.

  1. Meet every day with your team
  2. Observe your process on a daily basis
  3. Provide regular feedback

1. Meet every day with your team

As part of the team, you must be present as frequently as possible. We recommend setting up a 10-minute daily stand-up meeting. It will provide you with an opportunity to sync progress on important initiatives, discuss any existing or potential blockers, and get aligned about what's expected to happen during the day. A good practice is to schedule it soon after the beginning of the workday.

2. Observe your process on a daily basis

Monitoring the flow of work across your process can help you be a more effective coach and point out room for improvement in your team. Use every means available to stay ahead. We advise you to keep a close eye on your workflow analytics and look for ways to improve your company's value stream.

3. Provide regular feedback

As part of your leadership role, be sure to give credit when it is due and alert team members when their performance starts to drop. Ensure you praise top performance in public and keep the negative feedback for private talks.

What Are the Three Dimensions of Lean/Agile Leadership?

The three dimensions (or principles) of Lean/Agile leadership are:

  • Leading by example
  • Mindset and principles
  • Leading change

Final Thought on Lean Leadership

Lean leadership is a powerful approach to overcoming challenges and achieving continuous improvement. Lean leadership is necessary for making the most of the Lean philosophy. It is more of a coaching role than a managing one.

The primary function of such a person is to raise new leaders and help their team embrace a culture of continuous improvement. A true lean leader is value-driven and puts the needs of the customer in the first place.

By focusing on the principles of Lean Leadership, balancing service and challenge, and developing a strategic mindset, leaders can create a culture of innovation and achieve long-term success. With dedication and perseverance, any organization can master Lean leadership and build a brighter future for its team members and customers.




Alex Novkov

Alex Novkov

Content Lead

Energetic and practical, passionate about social media, creative writing, heavy weights, and outdoor activities.