The Connection Between Lean Culture, Employee Engagement, and Leadership

“Leadership is everyone’s business.”

– Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, Authors of The Leadership Challenge

Having high levels of employee engagement is critical for achieving a Lean Culture. In organizations with high levels of employee engagement, Lean concepts tend to be welcomed by the workforce as tools they can use to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the work they do. But in organizations where a large number of workers are not engaged, Lean initiatives are anything but welcome. Instead Lean tends to be viewed as something management is doing “to them,” not “with them.”

If increasing employee engagement is a key input to establishing a Lean Culture, where should an organization start? Research by companies such as Gallup, Towers Perrin, and the Metrus Institute helps to provide an answer. Studies from these and other firms confirm that four specific factors have a particularly strong influence on creating more engaged employees (interestingly, all four are directly connected to leadership behavior and/or team dynamics):

  1. Respect generated by Leaders who treat members of their team with dignity and respect.
  2. Empowerment established by Leaders who are willing to listen to other people’s opinions, and who empower the people on their team rather than control or restrict them.
  3. Clarity created by Leaders who provide a strong narrative about where the organization is heading, and how every role fits into that vision.
  4. Shared Values confirmed by Leaders who build trust with the team by aligning their daily behavior with organizational values.

Defining Leadership

While some believe that “being a leader” is reserved only for those charismatic personalities in the corner office, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, named by The Wall Street Journal as two of the 12 most influential leadership experts, have spent over 25 years proving otherwise. Their research – reported in the best-selling book The Leadership Challengeexamines the collective activities and processes associated with leading, and shows that leadership is actually an observable set of skills and abilities that are accessible to any person, at any level, in any organization. With this in mind, the term “leader” can be used to describe anyone with the ability to influence the work of others, regardless of role or title.

Kouzes and Posner have collected thousands of leadership stories from people at all levels of organizational life – from CEOs to front-line supervisors. Despite differences in title, age, gender, race, and other variables, these stories revealed that the process of leading follows a very consistent set of behaviors. Kouzes and Posner categorized these behaviors into five easy-to-grasp practices. Further research shows that exhibiting these practices more frequently enables leaders to make progress against the four factors shown above (Respect, Empowerment, Clarity and Shared Values), which in turn is the foundation for building Lean Culture.

The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®

The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership is a clear, evidence-based path to achieving the extraordinary used by over 3,000,000 people and organizations around the globe. It turns the abstract concept of leadership into understandable Practices that can be learned by anyone – from Supervisors to Managers to Directors – willing to step up and accept the challenge to lead. Ongoing studies consistently confirm that The Five Practices are positively correlated with both the effectiveness of leaders, and the level of commitment, engagement, and satisfaction of those that follow.

Of the hundreds of leadership development models that exist, The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership stands out as a proven approach to shaping organizational cultures aligned with the guiding principles of Lean Management.

Measuring the Behaviors of Effective Leadership

Because The Leadership Challenge (aka “TLC”) is built around observable behaviors, it should be no surprise that TLC includes a highly credible measurement instrument. The Leadership Practices Inventory (LPI) is one of the most widely used leadership assessment instruments in the world.

From our knowledge of Lean, we know that “what gets measured gets done.” This concept applies to leadership development as much as it applies to process improvement.

With the LPI, leaders rate themselves on the frequency with which they believe they engage in the behaviors associated with each of The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®. A group of “observers” (direct reports, managers, peers, etc.) also complete the survey, indicating the frequency with which they experience the leader engaging in the same behaviors. Combined, these different perspectives provide valuable insight into how the participant views him/herself, how others view him/her, and what actions can be taken to improve the individual’s ability to lead. Notice that the LPI is not a “yes she does that” or “no she does not” survey. The research shows that most leaders practice these behaviors at least some of the time. In fact, the findings are very clear that frequency of behavior is what differentiates the most effective leaders from their less effective counterparts. The data undeniably shows that when leaders more frequently exhibit these behaviors, customer-focused results improve, organizational alignment and accountability increases, process improvement efforts thrive and employee engagement rises.

Learn more about how you can get started engaging leaders to achieve the extraordinary. Download a sample LPI 360 Individual feedback report today.

Learning and Applying the Behaviors of Effective Leadership

In addition to the LPI assessment, there is a suite of Leadership Challenge products and services to help individuals and organizations internalize the concepts and tools, including guided development programs, books, workshops and personal coaching. Most organizations use an in-person workshop as a foundational learning event, during which participants learn about the Five Practices, receive LPI feedback, and begin to construct a personal development plan. While workshop agendas are typically customized to meet the needs of the given organization, common highlights include:

  • Receiving and reflecting on a personal LPI feedback report
  • Sharing “personal best” leadership stories
  • Activities designed to help clarify personal values
  • Working with other participants to define and refine your own vision of the future
  • Learning new techniques for challenging the status quo
  • Discussing how to build competence in others and influence collaboration
  • Becoming familiar with innovative ways to recognize others and celebrate group accomplishments

But the real learning does not happen in a classroom; it occurs over time, as leaders execute their development plans, evolve their behaviors and engage with others. The two-way interaction that takes place between leaders and their direct reports is a critical piece of the growth process. The concepts of TLC and the results of LPI evaluations are meant to be shared and used to set new, more productive expectations between leaders and team members.

In line with the practice of “Modeling the Way,” as leaders more consistently exhibit the behaviors associated with The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership, they will set a standard for how other leaders in the organization should act. This builds momentum towards achieving Lean Culture and helps turn the flywheel of organizational change.

The Importance of Healthy Team Dynamics

“Not finance. Not strategy. Not technology. It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is so powerful and so rare.”

– Patrick Lencioni, Author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

An “organization” can be defined as a group of people who have joined forces to achieve some form of shared purpose. In other words, an organization is just a large team, most likely made up of many smaller teams called divisions, departments, functions, etc. So it follows that the culture of an organization will be shaped largely by how people on teams interact with each other. With this in mind, any organization looking to develop a Lean Culture must take the time to define some common practices around building cohesive teams.

Research shows that highly cohesive teams consistently outperform other groups of people. Why? Cohesive teams:

  • Make better, faster decisions
  • Tap into the skills and opinions of all members
  • Avoid wasting time and energy on politics, confusion and destructive conflict
  • Have more fun while being more productive

But how does a “normal “team become a highly cohesive team? They do it by dedicating time and effort to instilling five key behaviors:

the 5 behaviors of a cohesive team model


1 – Cohesive Teams Trust One Another

Members of great teams trust one another on a fundamental, emotional level, and they are comfortable being vulnerable with each other about their weaknesses, mistakes, fears, and behaviors. They get to a point at which they can be completely open with one another, without filters.

2 – Cohesive Teams Engage in Conflict Around Ideas

Members of teams who trust one another are not afraid to engage in conflict around ideas that are key to the organization’s success. They do not hesitate to disagree with, challenge, and question each other, all in the spirit of finding the best answers, discovering the truth, and making great decisions.

3 – Cohesive Teams Commit to Decisions

Teams that engage in conflict around ideas are able to gain commitment to decisions, even when some members of the team initially disagree. That is because they ensure that all opinions and ideas are put on the table and considered, giving confidence that no stone has been left unturned.

4 – Cohesive Teams Hold One Another Accountable

Teams that gain commitment to decisions and standards of performance do not hesitate to hold one another accountable for adhering to those decisions and standards. What’s more, they don’t rely on the team leader as the primary source of accountability; they go directly to their peers.

5 – Cohesive Teams Focus on Achieving Collective Results

Team members who trust one another, engage in conflict around ideas, gain commitment to decisions, and hold one another accountable are more likely to set aside their individual needs and agendas and focus on achieving collective results. They do not give in to the temptation to place their departments, career aspirations, or status ahead of the collective results that define team success.

Four Dimensions

The Four Dimensions of Lean Culture is a highly effective framework for structuring holistic organizational change efforts. The model’s purpose is to provide a roadmap for building a healthier organization, where values and behaviors are aligned with the core principles of Lean Management, and where employees are engaged, customers are delighted and stakeholders are satisfied.

Customer-Focused Purpose

Why does your organization exist? If asked this question, would your leaders and employees all have a similar answer? Being clear about who you serve (your customer) and why can have an enormous impact on your business results. Study after study proves that when people are clear about their organization’s purpose, they are more engaged and more productive at work. They provide better customer service and the get passionate about improving the work they do.

Enterprise Alignment

Any group of people that wants to work together to achieve a shared objective needs to march in the same direction. This is true of any group of people, be it a sports team, an orchestra, a corporation or a government agency. People need to know where the group is going and every person needs to know what they are supposed to do to contribute to reaching the destination.

Continuous Improvement

“We can always do better” is a powerful belief. When this philosophy is promoted across an organization, wonderful things can happen. Establishing a common language enables people throughout the organization to quickly and effectively come together – across departmental and/or functional lines – to work as teams on improvement efforts that help move the organization forward toward the achievement of the strategic vision.

LPI Sample Report


Team Integris