How Elite Organizations Maintain a Competitive Edge

Scaling Leadership

I had finished a tour of a manufacturing company. They design and manufacture custom commercial and retail furniture. Their size prohibits them from being a household name, but many of their customers are well known globally. What I had witnessed was breathtaking and pure inspiration. We put a lot of trust on first impressions, so here is mine:

  1. People are smiling. I arrived twenty minutes before the tour began, just as workers were coming to work. It sounds simple enough, but virtually everyone that walked in the door looked over at where I had parked my car and smiled at me. 
  2. Whiteboards were everywhere. But not the simple whiteboards that hang on a wall. They had desks made of whiteboard material. Large floor to ceiling movable walls were made out of whiteboard material. When the walls were structural, they had sprayed walls with a coating so that workers and guests could write on them. Dry Erase markers were abundant. 
  3. No bosses and supervisors. This is not to say there was no leadership. Quite the opposite. They just dropped a lot of titles for the more common “mentor.”

The tour itself was a model of the Toyota Production System. They have implemented it so well that by all rights, they should not even be in business. They are in an area of some of the highest labor and home values in America. Yet they easily compete with competitors in the American South and internationally where labor is substantially cheaper. They do it because they are singularly obsessed with the elimination of waste and the creation of value for their customers.

Yet during the tour, I did hear one word about leadership. So, when the tour was over, I asked if there was a broad purpose or intent to their leadership. Todd, the production manager, got up from his chair, squared his shoulders to me, and said, “we practice servant leadership.”

Anyone taking their tour, of which 40,000 people have done, will see and hear kaizen or what many will call Lean. However, from my perspective, what I saw that made it work so effectively, was a system of leadership where leaders and managers are trained in how to be mentors, coaches, in short servants to those who are on the front lines to find and eliminate waste. 

Many organizations, consultants, and theorists espouse lean. However, what I saw, and from my own experience, to make Lean work, leaders must know how to coach and mentor, they must know how to serve. What I had witnessed was a system that had scaled these core values throughout the company. They were not just the values of the president or a few senior executives. Servant leadership, coaching, and mentoring were practiced at all levels. It was a system, and everyone was trained in how to execute the system.

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