Do you have what it takes to lead?

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Leadership in the manufacturing environment is complex.  Leaders must be concerned with safety, reliability, quality, delivery, and cost.  The results in each of these performance areas are dependent on people. What leadership traits must a person have to be a successful manufacturing leader?

There are many books and articles written about leadership.  Implementing Lean principles is foundational for success in today’s manufacturing environment.

What unique traits are needed to lead in a Lean manufacturing process?  In an article written in Industry Week (May 28, 2013) titled “Six Qualities of Lean Leadership,” Lonnie Wilson identified the following leadership qualities of a successful leader:

  1. Leaders as superior observers: They go to the action — they call it the Gemba — to observe not only the machines and the products but also to spend significant time with the employees. They also are in contact with their customers. A much-overlooked leadership skill they have in abundance is the ability to be an empathetic listener.
  2. Leaders as learners: They do not assume they know it all. Rather, they go to the floor to learn. They are in “lifelong” learning mode.
  3. Leaders as initiators: They plan, they articulate and sell their plans, and they act on their plans. They are not risk averse. They are not cavalier.
  4. Leaders as teachers: They are “lifelong” teachers. When something goes wrong, their first thought is not “Who fouled up?” but “Why did if fail?” and “How can I use this as a teaching opportunity?”
  5. Leaders as role models: They walk the talk. There is no substitute for this. NONE.
  6. Leaders as supporters: They recognize they mainly get work done through others, so they have mastered the skills of “servant leadership.”

Knowing these traits is not the same as putting them into action.  Many manufacturing leaders are good at some, but it is difficult to be good at all these traits.  One does not need to be designated as a leader to demonstrate these traits and to become known as a leader.  Every individual who works in an organization can apply these Lean leadership traits.  How does one become an exceptional Lean leader, whether in a leadership role or not?

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The first of these Leadership traits is the key to becoming good at all these traits:  observe!  Who around you do you see demonstrating lifelong learning?  Who takes the initiative?  Who walks the talk?  By observing those around you and the traits in which certain individuals are strong, you will accomplish two important things.  First, you will identify traits you want emulate.  Second, you will identify individuals that you can reach out to for advice and mentoring.


Don’t limit your search for good examples of these leadership traits to just your workplace.  There are individuals around you that can give you leadership advice and mentoring.  Leaders in your community, clubs, religious organizations, neighborhood, and family members demonstrate these skills.  Identify those leaders, observe them, and seek their advice and mentoring.

Build your network of mentors and leaders.  For example, I looked to my father as an example of someone who was a strong initiator, teacher, role model, and supporter.  He was not in manufacturing but helped me develop these traits and my leadership skills.  There are other leaders both from the military and Michelin with whom I have worked over the years who were also good at many of these six leadership traits and from whom I sought advice and coaching and continue to today.

You don’t have to wait to be asked to lead.  Be assertive.  When you see an opportunity to address a problem in your workplace, take the initiative.  Be an initiator.  Realize that you will not always be successful and be willing to make mistakes.  If you are a supporter, a servant leader, those you work with will help you to be successful.

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Do you have what it takes to lead?  Everyone can lead if they are willing to work towards becoming strong at these six Lean leadership traits.  These traits are the basis for strong manufacturing leadership at all levels of an organization.  Exercising these Lean leadership traits will drive improved safety, reliability, quality, delivery, and cost results.

(The author, Mike Ungar, dedicates this article to the memory of his Father, Fred Ungar, April 3, 1932 – August 13, 2020.)


About the Author: Mike Ungar is a Certified FocalPoint Business Coach and Trainer.  He has 35 years of experience with Michelin in manufacturing and human resources.  Mike is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and the Clemson MBA program.




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