Posted by: johnocunningham | June 11, 2014

“Lean” Leadership: Coming to Law Firms?

Cheryl Jekiel, Vice President of HR at FONA International, treated the Legal Sales and Service Organization’s RainDance audience to a fascinating look at the principles of “lean” leadership that have been implemented in many of the leading companies in the U.S. in recent years, especially in the healthcare industry.

Jekiel noted how hospitals grappled unsuccessfully with a rising tide of infections, wrong-limb operations, and other avoidable mistakes for many years before turning to companies in other industries with lean leadership for instruction on process improvement and people engagement techniques.

The results for hospitals that adopted these principles were stunning. Fewer infections, fewer medical and surgical errors, and faster patient recoveries came about when hospitals standardized and engineered consistent procedures in and out of the operating room, instead of relying on the inconsistent idiosyncrasies of surgeons and support staff (who all had different ways of tracking meds, marking limbs for surgery or doing anything else related to medial care).

Jekiel pointed out that the University of Chicago Hospital President Sharon O’Keefe studied Honda’s lean leadership systems, and that hospitals in the Northwest studied the example set by Toyota for eliminating mistakes, improving quality and delivering customer satisfaction. O’Keefe’s bio also indicates that from 1987 to 1989 she was senior manager for health care at the accounting firm, Ernst & Whinney (now Ernst & Young), where she developed a consulting practice focused on organizational design, operations improvement and large-scale change management.

There is no reason that the process improvement and people engagement principles of lean leadership cannot be applied in law firms, according to Jekiel, who noted that elite surgeons, like elite lawyers, have very firm ideas of what will work or not work in their professional practices.  The surgeons in many hospitals initially resisted the notion of listening to experts from other industries to improve healthcare, but once they saw how lean leadership worked in practice, they were sold.

Some leading-edge law firms are already engaged in process improvement and project management training, but Jekiel says that is not enough to really capture the benefits that come from also engaging every employee in the mission of an enterprise or organization.

She cites seven key principles of lean leadership, including:

  1. Focusing on the clients first, making all decisions based on what the clients want rather than doing so based on a battle of egos.
  2. Building a system for continuous improvement of all tasks and operations every day.
  3. Looking for ways to broaden participation in the development of key policies, practices and systems.
  4. Managing through proven processes for better outcomes.
  5. Solving problems through cross-functional teams based on facts rather than beliefs.
  6. Using office space and proper visual environments for better collaboration and results.
  7. Leading by lifting others up, catching them doing things right, and spotlighting what works, as well as what can be improved.

Jekiel also had a host of recommendations for reading material on the subject, including the book “Leaders Eat Last” by Simon Sinek, who also wrote the book, “Start With Why.”

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