What can dogs teach you about leadership?


Leadership and dogs look very different worlds with few common points. Well, they are certainly different things. Leadership is a very serious thing and training a dog has little to do with leading a person but, is there anything that dogs can teach us about leadership? Do dogs behave at a certain point like humans? The answer is YES. So, what lessons can we learn from dogs about leadership?

1. Give immediate feedback: Dogs can only associate an action and its consequence if one comes immediately after the other (no more than 5 seconds delay). This is the way they learn, through a mechanism called operant conditioning. Operant conditioning also works for humans. It is true that humans can associate more distant cause and effect relationships, but only at a certain point. The more immediate the feedback, the higher effect you’ll get.

  • Tip for humans: Dogs don’t mind if they are corrected in public, but people prefer receiving negative feedback in private.

2. Be consistent: You can drive a dog crazy if the same action triggers a very different consequence: “chewing” on their toys is great but “chewing” on your shoes is wrong. It is difficult for them to understand why the same thing (“chewing”) drives such a different behaviors on us. We must help them perceive the small differences that make each situation unique. Humans are more intelligent and capable of seeing “these little things” that can completely change the circumstances, but we need anyway a consistent response to our actions. If receiving feedback is welcome today and makes you mad tomorrow, nobody will know how to work with you.

3. Don’t punish, reward: Dogs can learn using punishment, but learning is more fun, lasts longer and creates less frustration if you use rewards. Punishment must be the very last resource and is acceptable only if the life of the dog is at risk. The same applies to humans.

4. Teaching takes time and patience: A teaching session with a dog needs preparation (environment, tricks), time (patience, calm), a clear definition of success and persistence (repetition with progressive difficulty). People needs pretty much the same things:

  • have a clear training goal: define the purpose
  • prepare the session:  what do you need?
  • patience and time: things generally don’t work the first time
  • frequent repetition setting the bar higher each time

Picture from: http://www.leaderdog.org/news-and-events/newsletters/update/issue-1-2014/national-award-prison-puppy-program

Best of LeanVoodoo 2016


This is a compilation of the most popular posts in 2016. Enjoy!

  • Myths about PDCA: Learn why people don’t use correctly this powerful tool: link
  • Effective vs. Efficient: Is there really a difference? Why does it matter?: link
  • Book summary, “Hoshin Kanri for the Lean Enterprise”: How can you use Hoshin Kanri to do an effective policy deployment? Learn from the experts! link
  • Hoshin Kanri and policy deployment: Learn the basics of Hoshin Kanri: link
  • 3 signs that people are not on board: Engagement is key for the success of Lean. Do you know how to read people reaction to change? link
  • Lean, common sense and apparent contradictions: Why are Lean principles difficult to understand? link



If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.

The philosopher John Locke, the statesman Benjamin Franklin, the transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, and the President Woodrow Wilson all presented statements matching this theme (learn more here). All of them knew that simplicity is a final state that requires hard work and clear ideas. Work executed without proper reflexion tends to be erratic, messy, partial. Only time and work can develop a concept and present it pure and clear.

It is no surprise that one of the most important Lean ideas is looking for simplicity: simple solutions, simple management rules, simple visuals. And, ironically, simplicity is not simple. It takes time, practice and patience. The first solution / panel / management system you put in place is rarely good. It typically needs time for testing and for development based on customer feedback.

Give time to simplicity.

Lean myths


Lean principles are based on common sense and experience, but at the same time might be counter-intuitive and in contradiction to normal practices. A Lean mental journey takes time, hands-on experience and the help of experts to be successful and understand Lean concepts in-depth. A superficial analysis of Lean can create false myths, some of which are really popular today. Let’s discuss some:

  • Middle managers hate Lean: Experience has taught some people that middle managers are always against Lean transitions. Therefore they must be fired upfront: FALSE. Learn more here
  • Lean means abdication: Some think that Lean means letting people do whatever they want without ony type of management: FALSE. Learn more here
  • Lean principles are not consistent: Some Lean principle are apparently inconsistent or in contradiction to experience after a superficial analysis. THEY ARE NOT. Learn more here
  • Lean equals “Just-in-Time”: It’s a popular belief that Lean and “Just-in-TIme” are equivalent terms. FALSE. Learn more here
  • Lean hates functions: Lean puts focus on the process, which is a sign for some people that Lean does not care about functions or functional knowledge. FALSE. Learn more here
  • Lean kills creativity: Lean gives extraordinary importance to standards. Some people assume that standardization implies creating robot workers without ideas. FALSE. Learn more here
  • PDCA myths: There several myths about PDCA out there, like “PDCA is only for engineering” or “PDCA is just do-things-and-see-what-happens”. FALSE. Learn more here
  • Lean is a set of tools: Very popular, it is easy to think that Lean is just the sequential application of some tools like VSM, 5s, kanban,… FALSE. Learn more here
  • Lean hates automation: Lean loves simplicity and easy to change solutions. Some may misunderstand this love for simplicity and believe that Lean hates automation. FALSE. Learn more here


Myth: Middle managers hate Lean


This is one of the most popular myths about Lean. Middle managers are dangerous people who stop any improvement initiative and lack strategic vision about operational excellence. They must be kept away from any Lean work at all costs or they will blur and corrupt Lean ideas and concepts and will destroy people’s morale… Is this true? Of course not. However, middle managers are special people who need special care when applying Lean. Let’s learn why.

According to Wikipedia, middle managers are:

Intermediate management of a hierarchical organization that is subordinate to the executive management and responsible for at least two lower levels of junior staff.[1] Unlike the line management, middle management is considered to be a senior (or semi-executive) management position.[2] Middle managers’ main duty is to implement company strategy in the most efficient way. Their duties include creating effective working environment, administrating the work process, making sure it is compliant with organization’s requirements, leading people and reporting to the highest level of management.

Let’s see what makes middle managers so special:

  • They are the highest management position in the organization with tactical (“get things done”) responsibility.
  • They are the lowest management position in the organization with strategic (“shape the future”) responsibility.
  • They have the highest “authority vs. accountability” gap in the organization.


What happens when Lean comes to a new company? Remember that Lean initiatives start normally at the shop floor, which means:

  • Operators, technicians and line management adopt Lean management ideas: they are encouraged to control their work, test ideas and remove functional barriers. They are empowered to become process owners.
  • Middle managers definition of success changes from “telling people what to do” to “remove problems and develop people”.
  • Executive managers still work and think according to classic management ideas.

During this process, middle managers might feel:

  • They are losing power.
  • Their job is not necessary anymore.
  • The definition of job success is unclear and inconsistent across the organization.
  • Their bosses don’t know what Lean is like and still request traditional “command and control” behaviours.

As a consequence, we create a middle manager sandwich:


When the environment at a Lean transition is like this for a middle manager, he/she can perfectly react with anger / fear / frustration and move back to classic management and sabotage, either actively (canceling changes, taking control) or passively (removing support) the Lean work.

What to do?

  • Be aware of the middle manager’s special condition and look for symptoms of frustration (learn more here).
  • Make sure middle managers are part of the Lean transition, feel recognized and participate in those important decisions that affect their work.
  • Help executive managers support and empower their people, avoiding wrong behaviours like “command and control” or “abdication” (learn more here and here)
  • Communicate continuously Lean concepts and ideas. They are not evident at all and can be easily misunderstood (learn more here)


“I hate you” logo from http://listsurge.com/top-10-ways-to-make-someone-hate-you/


Lean and empowerment: Delegation vs Abdication



Some days ago I was at a meeting where we were discussing how to improve a process. The process team members and the team leader said that they felt ultimately responsible [sic] of the process performance and requested more authority to test their ideas and do changes. This proposal is very well aligned with Lean principles like:

  1. Involve front line in improving their work
  2. Promote learning through repeated practice in solving problems

So we scheduled a meeting to present the idea to the area director and define how to give the team more freedom to try things and learn. To our surprise (well, not really), the area director refused to do so. Her arguments were “I want to keep control because I’m ok with delegating, but not with abdicating”. Off with their heads!

This situation is easy to find. Not every manager is ready to move from the classic thinking trio: “command and control” + “experts own improvement” + “compliance at any cost” to Lean management principles. The presence of these ideas is a very good predictor of problems during a Lean transformation, so please beware if you hear things like “control”, “this is too risky”, “do whatever it takes” or anything similar.

However, the area director was right in some way. How? Managers have to delegate and stop telling people what to do. Telling people what to do takes away responsibility from the person. But managers still have a job in Lean:

  • Ask questions that provoke the right thinking
  • Understand problems by observing the process (at the gemba)
  • Challenge, enable and remove obstacles for workers while they are solving problems

The right move 2.png

In other words, “abdicating” in the sense of disappearing from the gemba, asking nothing, hiring Lean experts and asking them to do the improvement work for you, ignoring the process, avoiding coaching, etc… IS NOT AN OPTION. If we use the classic RACI matrix, managers must move from Responsible (do everything, take all decisions) to Accountable (make sure things happen, help those doing the job). Follow this Wikipedia link to the RACI matrix for more information (link here).

And now, a very important final warning:


Middle managers are a common source of problems during Lean transformations. They are typically hard to convince and, when they try Lean, it is not unusual to see them go back to classic thinking after some days / weeks / months. Why? It’s a “delegation” problem.

Lean transformations usually start at the gemba: operators, analysts, technicians… those people whose boss is a middle manager. Middle managers learn how to empower their people and give them freedom to try and learn. But the boss of a middle manager is a director, who has never been exposed to Lean and still uses the classic “command and control” style. Long story short: the middle manager feels he has lost power/influence/capacity because decisions are taken either by his people or his boss. He might think he is not useful anymore and might be fired. This situation is extremely dangerous for the Lean transformation.

That’s why education and communication are so important in Lean. Directors must be trained in Lean and know what to expect. Managers must have the opportunity to explain the Lean transformation at their area to their bosses and the new way a great manager looks like with Lean. This is REALLY critical for Lean success.

Lean thinking: Common sense and (apparent) contradictions

Lean is based on common sense, clear principles  and simple rules. And, at the same time, its conclusions are counter-intuitive to many. In fact almost everybody exposed to Lean has experienced that “when has this become so complicated!” moment when the pieces simply don’t fit together in your head. I see this very often when helping people with Lean. Some questions and apparent contradictions are very common. These are some of the most popular:

Popular contradiction #1: Splitting a process in parts and improving each part must necessarily improve the process.

Our common sense shouts out loud that this must be true. Well, it is WRONG, let’s see why. Imagine we are the owners of a pizzeria. This is our process:

Pizza 1.jpg

Our process has a bottleneck (oven), which determines the process capacity. There are also different constraints (oven, dough, ingredients) which vary depending on the demand. Any improvement action that does not improve the bottleneck speed will not improve the process capacity. If we split the process in parts (e.g. 1. Dough, 2. Ingredients, 3. Oven, 4. Waiter) and improve each part separately, we will be wasting time and money in useless improvement actions, as far as they not improve the oven performance (the bottleneck). For example, we might be working hard making the waiter service more effective, but the effect on the overall process capacity will be zero.

Pizza 2

Please note that this example assumes “speed = improvement”, it is a simplification to make it easy to understand. Of course there are other improvement factors like health, quality or cost that could drive meaningful improvement too.

Conclusion #1: Partial process analysis can promote useless improvement actions. ALWAYS understand the bottleneck and analyze the process globally.

After this example you may think: “Ok, I can waste time and money but at least we can’t do any harm”. WRONG again. Let’s see this example: imagine a kayak (the process) with different people (the functions) working together to make the kayak move forward. Improving a function can’t do any harm, right?

Canoa 2

CREDIT: Image created by the Lean Enterprise Institute.

This example shows that improving a function without considering the full process can make things worse! This situation happens all the time in real life.

Conclusion #2: Improving a function without considering the effect in the full process can worsen the global performance. Balancing the process is key.

The combination of a global process analysis (understand the bottleneck and constraints) and balancing the process is a winning strategy.

Popular Contradiction #2: Metrics always drive improvement.

Yes, we have always heard that what is not measured is not improved. Let’s measure everything! How can this be wrong? Well, it is. If you measure the wrong thing you can foster an incorrect behaviour.

Let’s see the previous kayak example. Improving one part of the process makes the global process work worse. Why does this happen? Why does only a part of the process improve? This happens in most cases because organizations use functional metrics (vs. global metrics) to define success. If the success of each paddler is measured by the number of strokes (functional metric), no matter the impact on the kayak speed (process metric), they will focus in their individual performance and work hard to make it bigger. Metrics are sadly promoting the wrong behaviour.

Conclusion #3: Metrics can foster wrong behaviours. Think carefully what metrics you’d like to use. Metrics must be meaningful from the customer point of view and measure global performance.

Using functional metrics to understand global performance is like trying to know a pizza temperature measuring just the temperature of the tomato sauce.

Popular Contradiction #3: Splitting in functions increases improvement.

This is a variation of contradiction #1 and, again, it is WRONG. Splitting a process in functions typically creates the wrong idea that improving each function performance must necessarily improve the process performance. It looks right but it is not true.

Let’s see an example. Sport teams have different functions working together. In soccer you have the goalkeeper (function #1: save goals), defenders (function #2: defend own goal), midfielders (function #3: connect defense and attack) and strikers (function #4: score goals).

  • A functional approach would take all functionally similar players from all teams and make them train together. They will learn from each other and grow faster. When all players come back from the functional training to their teams to play a match, the team will benefit from the functional improvement.
  •  A process approach would make all functionally different players from the same team train together. The will have a common coach to synchronize functions and make the process (soccer) flow.


What works best in reality? The process approach. There are thousands of teams with great “functional” players who, for different reasons, can’t play as a team. They rarely end up as champions.

Conclusion #4: Focusing in functions creates “functional sub optimization”, this is, using time and money in actions or projects that improve a function of the process and, at the same time, worsens the process globally (e.g. kayak example).

Functional Sub Optimization

Please note: Functions are very important because they take care of the knowledge (TRUE) but the process must go first and functions second. If the example above has made you think that Lean hates functions, forget it. This is also WRONG (learn more here)

Popular Contradiction #4: Splitting a process in functions improves process ownership. This is a very popular idea, but it is WRONG. Different functions owning their area of expertise looks like a good idea, but it does not work as expected in most cases. One process owner with enough cross-functional resources improves ownership and fosters improvement almost always.

Let’s see an example: think in a park and then think in your home. The park has its ownership / responsibility shared among multiple users with different expectations. Your home has one /two owners who are responsible of everything related with maintenance and “performance”. What is typically best used / maintained: a park or your home?


There are also many business examples. Let’s think in a hospital, what is best?


Conclusion #5: One process owner with cross-functional resources improves ownership because the grey zones of responsibility are eliminated.

Final conclusion: Lean rules and principles are based on common sense. Its apparent contradictions come typically from our brain trying to think the way is has always thought. Give Lean a chance!