The Need for Leadership Routines

In the blogpost “Integrating the Management Process” we brought strategic and process management into a single management system under the accountability of senior leadership. The intent is have a cohesive system where strategy formulation clearly links to strategy implementation and to the management of operations. Here is a simple visualisation from that blog post:

Level 1 Management Process

The flow from left to right with one part of the management process feeding into the next throws a deceptively simplified view on the cohesion of the system. Fact is, that this is not the case: Despite establishing a singular accountability of top management for the management system, without implementing additional mechanisms cohesion will break down because there are a different set of people working on each part of the management process and, more importantly, on the core processes that are being managed by the management process. These people have different views on the organisation, different competences and education, different networks and different value sets.

Weak Links

This creates multiple weak links in the chain from vision and mission to action and results. These links can be visualised in several ways. Here we take a hierarchical view on the process, indicating how objectives and action is as far away from the initial vision as the CEO from the shop-floor worker after objectives have been cascaded down the hierarchy:

Hierarchy of Objectives (Bredrup, H., 1995) and involved levels of the organisation

Similarly, the vision and mission that have been carefully devised in many costly executive meetings, are steadily filtered as they pass hands along the management process chain. The effect of the filter is magnified by the varying temporal cycles of each part of the chain: How well are the critical aspects of the vision that is revisited every few years, still a key focus area of department and team leads when managing operations on a daily basis?

The management process as a filter across hierarchies and time

But the weakest link between vision and action is between the management process and the core and support processes. This is the link between managing operations and executing operations and this is where people act based on the immediate constraints and pressures of daily operations. And these pressures and constraints compete very effectively with the a vision that was communicated a couple of years earlier.

Weak links from strategy formulation to operational action

The nature of the links between management and core or support processes that we need to establish, if we want to lead an organisation according to a defined strategy, are described on the left and right of the illustration. The question is how can we strengthen these links?

Take the Lead

We all know the importance of communication and we can be creative how we make the management process matter to everyone: This could be staff input and involvement, road-shows, breakfast meetings with senior management, strategy quizzes at the annual new year’s dinner and many more. And there is an obvious need to ensure a robust design of the management process with defined interfaces, leadership involvement and iterations between the sub-processes.

This is all helpful and a considerable effort here will be necessary, but this is not sufficient. Such approaches could be devised by a clever internee. But the focus of this blog post is on the essential aspect of leadership in bridging the link between the management process and operational execution in the core processes and make sure that formulated strategy guides daily action.

The idea for this blog was initially inspired by several observations of leadership in action:

  • At a 3-D printing start up with 45 employees the CTO would take a weekly walk through the company asking staff to explain their process KPIs and the levers to improve those KPIs
  • A production manager would spend about a quarter of his day observing part of the process to check if staff stuck to the process standards
  • In the maintenance organisation of a European airline the CEO had a T-Card system to organise his shop-floor visits to ensure each area was regularly and systematically covered
  • Every company with a solid lean management culture will have a system of Gemba-Walks where management regularly takes a look at the real-life process and checks compliance with 5S principles and standard process definitions

What is common about these observations is the personal, insistent and repetitive leadership of those running the processes by a manager who has a clear idea of what is important for performance. These managers did not hide behind the vision statement on the intranet, job descriptions, annual staff objectives or other standard management techniques they had learned at business school. They took a direct leadership role to coach, enable and require staff to act according to the intended strategy and objectives.

This is why I have titled this blog post with the term ‘leadership routines’ and not ‘management routines’. Of course the term leadership touches a multitude of variables (Winston and Patterson, 2006) and there are as many definitions. But for the sake of practicality I refer to a useful working definition “Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal” (Kruse, 2013).

So we are not talking about management tasks such as allocation of resources, formulating objectives or approving a budgets. These are all important, but they do directly inform shop-floor behaviour. To bridge the gap between the management process and operational execution in the core processes, we the kind of impactful guidance that can compete with the immediate operational constraints and pressures, with existing team attitudes and values. A guidance that puts the strategic goals at the center of action.

Leadership Routines

Further up I mentioned that leadership needs to be direct, insistent and repetitive. Repetitive means that leadership needs to happen on an ongoing routine basis and must not get displaced by administrative management tasks. There is no point having the qualities of a leader if the organisation never gets to see those qualities in action.

Therefore the second word in the term ‘leadership routine’ is an important one. The first word ‘leadership, is addressed in this blog by applying practice proven methods to that routine. Aspects like building charisma and communication skills is beyond the scope of this blog.

Here I describe five leadership routines that you can choose from, combine, extend and adapt when devising your own approach to bringing strategic focus to the shop and office floor. Which approach fits best will depend on your context, the level or process maturity and your own leadership style.

  • Management by Walking Around
  • Gemba Walk
  • Objective checks
  • KATA
  • Attend performance dialogs

Each of these approaches would deserve their own blog post or a chapter of a book. The objective of this blog post is to establish the need to bring leadership to the shop and office floor if the management process is to impact action and results and provide an entry into proven methods. Below I summarise some of these methods and provide links and references so you can delve deeper as needed.

Management by Walking Around

Management by walking around (often abbreviated as MBWA) may be the earliest approach to systematically leading by personal interaction between management and staff. MBWA was practiced at Hewlett-Packard in the 1970s and popularised by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman in the 1980s (Serrat, 2017).

MBWA focuses on building an informal and constructive two-way exchange between staff and management and shifting the role of the manager from one of command and control to that of a coach. Whilst this does give space for management to coach staff and ‘transmit the organisation’s values’, a large part of the effort is more foundational around building a more informal culture that empowers staff to bring in ideas and drive performance.

Serrat suggests the following steps to implement MBWA:

  1. Wander about as often as you can, but recurrently and preferably daily.
  2. Relax as you make your rounds.
  3. Share and invite good news.
  4. Talk about family, hobbies, vacations, and sports.
  5. Watch and listen without judgment.
  6. Invite ideas and opinions to improve operations, products, services, etc.
  7. Be responsive to problems and concerns.
  8. Look out for staff doing something right, and give them public recognition.
  9. Project the image of a coach and mentor, not that an inspector.
  10. Give staff on-the-spot help.
  11. Use the opportunity to transmit the organization’s values.
  12. Swap value and legacy stories.
  13. Share your dreams.
  14. Have fun.

Gemba Walk

The well established principle of lean thinking is that you can only understand and solve issues at the place they occur. This need to be on the shop-floor is coded in the lean method Gemba Walk. Whilst retaining the cultural force of staff empowerment practiced in MBWA, the Gemba Walk adds a strong and structured process view by involving management in viewing the whole value stream and identifying waste.

This can be structured in seven steps (

  1. Pick a theme
  2. Prepare your team
  3. Focus on the process
  4. Be where the value stream is
  5. Record your observations – don’t make suggestions during the walk
  6. Add an extra pair of eyes
  7. Follow-up with multiple stakeholder views

When implementing Gemba Walks it is recommended to use a lean coach for around 6 months to establish good practice. A Gemba Walk check-list helps maintain a transparent and repeatable structure.

Objective checks

Objective checks ensure that each member of staff knows their processes, the process objectives and the levers to reach those objectives. It is important to first establish a culture of staff empowerment and the role of manager as a coach so that this does not turn into an exam situation. But there should also be no hesitancy to expect staff to understand their contribution to organisational performance. This approach helps instil basic process thinking in the organisation. A pre-requisite is that those processes are defined and agreed.

The approach is simple: The manager coach visits staff members during their work activities and asks them questions such as:

  1. Who are the customers of your process?
  2. What are their needs?
  3. What is the process output that serves those needs?
  4. How is the process measured and what are the objectives?
  5. What can you do to help reach those objectives?


Whilst the objective check ensures a solid understanding of process performance, KATA takes the next step and coaches staff to act on that understanding. KATA is a coaching technique to build a culture of rigorous continuous improvement. KATA builds on an understanding of the target state of the process, the current state and the definition of the next step towards the target state.

There are 5 coaching questions that go with these method:

  1. What is the target state of the process or process step you are improving?
  2. What is the current state?
  3. Which obstacles are stopping you reaching the target state and which single obstacle will you tackle next? What exactly is the problem?
  4. What is therefore the next step you will take and what is the expected outcome?
  5. When can we meet to check what you have learned from step 4?

The approach needs to be data-driven to be effective and this requires some training and coaching. Also the ability to make and evaluate the outcome of multiple small experiments in step 4 needs training.

KATA has many parallels to the lean A3 sheet approach. Both are structured problem solving methods that follow the PDCA cycle. The A3 method is more suited to small projects done in a team and led by a staff member trained on the method. KATA is something that all staff members can be practicing within their own work area.

Coaching KATA effectively takes some learning and the website of Tilo Schwarz is a huge resource for this:

Attend performance dialogs

Performance dialogs are where process teams get together to identify and track measures to achieve their process objectives. Attending these is a quick way for a manager to understand where a team is and how they are progressing towards their targets.

This cannot replace a visit to the shop or office floor where the process is actually performed, but can be a complementary routine to see if and how observations made during visits to the office and shop floor are addressed by the team.

Managers attending performance dialogs should make sure they do not take over and override the moderator in any way. The best way to ensure this is to stick to questions rather than statements – this avoids giving directives.

Questions can be simply to understand objectives or a measure better or can be taken from the ‘objective check’ or ‘KATA’ method.

Final Thoughts: Management Commitment in Action

Managing commitment is the most frequently quoted success factor for complex projects and organisational change. This is very much valid for establishing continuous process improvement which requires not only a method but also a way of thinking and a value system.

But the nature of management commitment is seldom defined. Agreement, for example, is not commitment. I have experienced managers who would agree with a project but not free up the time of the key project team members or provide funding for external hires.

But providing resources, a management task, is also not sufficient.

I was once working with a managing director who was extremely supportive of projects to introduce BPM and lean management. Resources were provided without question, a war room was set up, staff was pulled out of key areas and senior managers were given objectives for their contribution to project success. These were all strong and helpful points, but they were not fully convincing as the MD was not visibly prioritising his own time and effort in the same way and it proved difficult to get the required time from the next management level. The project significantly picked-up after we agreed on time the MD needs to spend leadership activities. To make sure this was reliably done, we visualised the agreed daily and weekly activities in a T-Card system showing exactly what had been completed and what not. We had established a routine.

Management commitment is demonstrated by taking leadership. The leadership routines described in this blog were initially developed by managers who saw the need to lead their organisation, not just manage it. In the same way you will need to establish the leadership routines that work best for you and your organisation. This will require some deep thinking, reflection and creativity. The routines defined in this blog are examples and should help to get started. I have not provided a single cohesive template because there is not one-size-fits-all approach – this will need to be your task.


Bredrup H. (1995) The Traditional Planning Hierarchy. In: Rolstadås A. (eds) Performance Management. Springer, Dordrecht. retrieved on 11.10.20 11:40

Winston, E.B. and Patterson, K. (2006) An Integrative Definition of Leadership in International Journal of Leadership Studies, Vol. 1 Iss. 2, 2006, pp. 6-66, Regent University ISSN 1554-3145, retrieved on 11.10.20 11:51

Kruse, K., What Is Leadership? In (April 9 2013) retrieved on 11.10.20 14:00

Serrat O. (2017) Managing by Walking Around. In: Knowledge Solutions. Springer, Singapore. (retrieved on 01.11.2020, 19:07)

Womack, J., (2013) Gemba Walks, Expanded 2nd Edition, Lean Enterprise Institute

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