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Jon Miller

Six Sigma

Leaders Pull

People who enable flow by creating pull are leaders

Published: Tuesday, September 14, 2010 - 07:29

Leaders lead. Or do they? There is not always a cause-and-effect relationship between leadership actions and follower behavior. Not all leaders succeed at pulling people along in the same direction. If a leader needs to drive people in a direction, keeping the fringes from straying too far from the herd like so many cattle on the trail from Oklahoma to Chicago, is he really leading?

There are a series of neat binary choices that define lean-not lean in reference to mindsets, behaviors, and operating conditions: waste vs. value, batch vs. flow, short-term vs. long-term, hide vs. expose, who vs. why, push vs. pull. These and others guiding principles help provide “true north” on the compass of continuous improvement. They apply as well to lean leadership as they do to designing discrete elements of lean operations.

I recently had the opportunity to work with the management team of one of our clients. They are about three years along on their lean journey, doing quite well but appropriately dissatisfied. The purpose of this session was to coach them on becoming better lean leaders. As we were discussing how to be better role models for the “not-product-out-but-market-in” concept, a simple idea struck home: oppressors push, leaders pull.

What does this mean?

One of the most common applications of this market-in idea for leaders is in the context of a lean transformation, to gain support and commitment for change. Pushing people into a new way of working is rarely effective beyond the very short term. Pulling people along requires not selling the product in terms of the features and benefits of a lean implementation, but rather the market-in of ideas; leaders must address the needs, concerns, and hopes of each individual. Remembering to listen and adjust language and focus during change management communication is the difference between market-in and product-out, between success and failure.

Within a production system, pull is used to enable flow where it does not exist naturally. Lean projects often work to link processes one-to-one whenever possible to minimize handling, waiting, batch size, queue time, inventory cost, and the obscuring of problems. When this is not possible, visual systems such as kanban are installed to enable pull between flows. People who enable flow by creating pull are leaders.

Where eddies and stagnation exist within workflow, a leader arrives to pull some burden off of the overburdened process, either by redesigning processes, reassessing priorities, or reallocating resources. The oppressor pushes for longer hours, high utilization, and efficiency without stopping to ask why the work does not flow.

Leaders attract people with their ideas, character, and actions while oppressors push people away with theirs. The people who cannot leave an oppressive boss feel stress, while those working for a leader who pulls and challenges them feel a positive tension.

The person who frees up cash flow by linking the release and progression of work to the clear signal from the customer minimizes unnecessary work in process and helps to free resources this ties up. Such a person is not only a leader but a profit generator.

Market leaders pull customers to their products while oppressors waste resources pushing unwanted or inferior products and services. Any producer or service provider who knowingly creates, supplies, or services without a firm customer demand is an oppressor—they are pushing rather than pulling in response to customer.

Anyone who asks (pulls) for ideas is a leader of discussions, a leader of problem-solving, a leader of continuous improvement. A person who is always ready with their idea but never ready to listen is an oppressor.

Sometimes leaders need to pull even though the direction is not at all popular. This creates tension among the people they lead. True leaders are skilled at moderating this tension, recognizing that tension exists when there is pull in two different directions. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as a person pulling in the wrong direction is still pulling and may be persuaded to align with the leader's direction. On the other hand, leaders who push against the will of the people they are leading are oppressors, creating stresses within a social structure that lead to fragmentation.

A leader is a person whom others follow. To rephrase the adage from TWI, “If the follower hasn’t followed, the leader hasn't led.” Perhaps “followed” is a more accurate term for a true leader. But that word is a bit awkward, so I would settle for “puller.”


About The Author

Jon Miller’s picture

Jon Miller

Jon Miller is co-founder of Gemba Research LLC where he leads development efforts including consulting solutions, training materials, and establishing internal consulting standards. Miller was born in Japan and lived there for 18 years. In 1993 Miller was fortunate to start his career working with consultants who were students of Taiichi Ohno. Since 1998 he has led dozens of lean transformation projects in a wide range of industries. Miller has taught kaizen in 15 countries for more than 15 years. He is a frequent contributor of articles to a variety of publications and written more than 800 articles on lean manufacturing, kaizen, and the Toyota Production System on Gemba’s blog.


But sometimes ...

Your article started me thinking about how push/pull applies to the Blanchard Situational Leadership Model (the leader has the skills to supply the type of leadership that each "follower" needs). Pull is entirely consistent with all 4 levels, but it occurs to me that in a few cases, a leader has an obligation to push. I require my team members to push back if they think something is wrong or going wrong; I value consensus. But in a few circumstances (e.g., absolute deadlines, safety) I have found it necessary to suspend the rules and move into a directive mode. The team is always informed of the change in rules, the rationale, and a duration (pull techniques), but the members don't really have a choice (other than quitting, I suppose) or opportunity for significant discussion.