Kaizen™ is a key initiative however, prior to initiating any process improvement, one has to ensure laying of proper foundation that will support the team members’ efforts. This is because, team members are the ones who are involved in challenging the status quo and obviously, will be facing difficulties.  Those who are practicing KaizenÔ or Lean for years would agree to the fact that it is easy to explain what is not a Kaizen™ culture than to explain what it is!  All of us are aware that Kaizen™ culture is not about improving a process or a system, but more about changing the mind-set or creating a culture. Cultural change, per se, will happen only when the leaders realize that their presence is to serve the people they are leading. They have to actively listen to their team members, empower their team members asking, “Why this way and why-not-the-other-way”?

What is a Servant Leadership and Who is a Servant Leader? Although the term Servant Leadership is coined by Robert Greanleaf, the mention of Servant leader is found in Artashastra a book written by Kautilya in 300BC. Mr Narendra Modi too claimed that he is a Pradhan-Sevak (Prime-servant) first and then only a Prandhan-Mantri (Prime Minister). Servant leadership is a leadership philosophy with a set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations and creates a caring world. Generally, in a traditional leadership, it involves the power-exercise by one at the “top of the pyramid.” According to Robert K. Greenleaf, a servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. A servant-leader shares information & power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.

If a leader sees people as a means to serve him/ her, then they cannot be termed as Servant Leaders but can be termed as Boss or Manager. If one views his/ her role as a leader to empower others so as to develop team better at what they do, to achieve greater levels of skill & ability, to make productive people in the process, then only they can be termed as servant leader. A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. Few characteristics of a Servant Leader which are to be seen in a Lean Leader are as follows:

Self-Awareness – This means having a conscious knowledge of one’s character, traits or feelings. Self-awareness is the cornerstone to emotional intelligence, which is a key factor while dealing with changing mindset of people. Just as Current State Mapping is done in Lean Practices to ascertain the current status and identify improvement areas, self-awareness reveals the areas of improvement in an individual. A servant leader motivates his team by identifying the areas of improvement in a person, in process etc., A servant leader uses their power to develop followers and develop the potential of the workforce, rather than using their power to control and exploit employees.

Caring - is the practice of looking after those who are unable to care for themselves or about displaying kind or concern for others. Servant Leader supports, on a daily basis, the well-being of everyone including self.  Servant leaders are sensitive to individual and situational needs, because they are relation-oriented and situational, rather than being only concerned about their own authority and power. Thus he/she also stimulates a positive environment that ensures constructive relationship among the team. A Lean Leader precisely does this.

Dialogue – is taking part in a conversation between two or discussion involving more people to resolve a problem. A Servant Leader or a Lean Leader provides the right conditions for effective and objective exchanges through Dialogue. Dialogue means speaking “their language” or empathizing others. It is also an art of persuasion after understanding the other side. It is about providing frank and right feedback face to face. This will happen as we practice Non-violent Communication. Through dialogues, the leaders take all ideas into account and build a consensus for most effective, collective solution.

Listening – Listening is the ability to receive and interpret messages accurately in the communication process. Listening is the key to effective communication. Listening is pivotal for having a dialogue. More than listening, precisely it is Active Listening. That is fully concentrating on what is being said rather than just passively 'hearing' the message. Active listening involves listening with all senses. It is all about dedicating full attention while listening, not interrupting the speaker nor to have a prejudice (judging the person or the statement). It is about respecting any point of view even it is not matching with the listener. These characteristics are essential for a Lean Leader.

Encouraging – means infusing confidence in someone by providing the right support. It would be ideal to say, Encouraging is a combination of triple “E”s – Educate, Engage & Empower. A Lean Leader has to develop his subordinates as to increase their competencies. Educating means providing intellectual or moral instructions. Leaders engage their teams or attract their teams.  They give enough freedom & authority to their team to try something new differently. They celebrate the problems so that they don’t remain wrapped under. They also do not fail to celebrate the success.

Delegation – means nominating someone or authorizing someone to represent self or organization by leaders. This needs strong Intuition in choosing the right member. This will happen when the leaders educate, engage and empower their team members. While delegating the leaders anticipate the outcome, negotiate with the subjects in identifying the processes to get the outcome. If required, the leader will collaborate with right resources in achieving the mission of delegation. 

Influencing – Leaders have to influence their followers, persuade or convince them on the principles adapted. Servant leadership is more effective, because “the arm of control is short, while the reach of influence has no limits”. Servant leaders are willing to risk making themselves vulnerable by trusting and empowering others, rather than being afraid of vulnerability.

Humility - Servant leaders view themselves as servants and stewards, and voluntarily humble themselves in order to serve others, rather than blaming others for failure and claiming credit for success. Lean Leaders are no different from this.

Trust – means firm belief in reliability or ability of someone. Leaders have to gain confidence of their team members. This will happen only when they share information with their members in full transparency. Thus they build confidence on mutual reliability.

Organizations practicing KAIZEN™ need leaders who know how to serve their people. A servant leader -- one who wants to serve first and then lead, creates a work environment in which people can express their views & opinions without any fear. Servant leadership supports the belief of people wanting to be engaged and also have some level of control over their environment. A servant leader recognizes that the people doing the work generally have the best ideas about how to improve the processes they participate in. Through tools like rapid problem solving (PDCA) and suggestion systems, servant leaders practice participatory decision-making, empowering employees to be innovators and co-creators in positive change. Such leaders are also enablers; making direct observations, and then creating improvements that add value to the work of employees.

Kaizen™ or Lean is not implemented for bringing up superfluous changes. Precisely for this reason, most CI initiative after starting with a bang, in most cases, eventually go back to their old practices. It is because, obviously, the culture has not changed.  As long as there were no major challenges… KAIZEN™ worked but when things start getting complicated, people switched back to their comfort zone.

A Lean culture empowers an organization that will look for an opportunity in all the processes to perform it better. We all are aware that just by using Lean tools, sustainable results will not be delivered. It requires an organization to promote a long term view of process improvement.  To do so, the organization requires leaders with a teachable spirit, or leaders that want to create a safe environment whereby problems are solved by observing, asking questions and through experimentation. When striving for progress, Servant Leadership is an effective leadership style that is not only results-driven, but forms a meaningful bond of trust and respect between leaders and their team.

At the heart of an established Lean culture, one will find a Servant Leader. By looking at the fundamental role of a leader, one sees that the primary function of a leader is to serve the people they lead.  Leaders serve when they listen, provide resources, support, help remove roadblocks, and provide direction and vision… the possibilities are endless, but the key to it all amounts to the value in serving. This type of leadership creates a culture of caring and relationship building for the entire organizations and the customers they serve.

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