Lean Six Sigma Leadership Insights From Abraham Lincoln


ISE Magazine February 2019 Volume: 51 Number: 2

By Merwan Mehta

Anyone first visiting the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., is bound to be awestruck. The majestic monument to celebrate the life and accomplishments of the 16th U.S. president is almost 100 feet tall and covers an area close to an acre, with the memorial grounds occupying more than 100 acres.

Two of Lincoln’s most famous speeches adorn the side walls of the room: the Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural speech. He crafted both literary masterpieces in flowing poetic prose with morality, humanity and humility, written and delivered devoid of spite toward his enemies.

It is easy to become engrossed in the story of Lincoln’s battle for human rights from his books and articles. In practicing and teaching concepts of lean Six Sigma, my interest in Lincoln continued to grow as I became intrigued by how Lincoln achieved operational excellence in all that he touched. It was a sudden realization for me that Lincoln’s life and implementation of effective processes in a continuous improvement environment were closely connected.

Before we discuss how Lincoln’s way of leading and managing reflect so well with principles of lean Six Sigma leadership we know today, it is worth noting the qualifications Lincoln had to serve as chief executive at such a boisterous time. In his profession, he was considered a second-rate country lawyer with no substantial military experience and had never been in battle. However, Lincoln was deeply convinced of the evil of slavery, and had full faith in the desire of most people to do well to others. This brings us to the first principle of lean Six Sigma leadership Lincoln demonstrated: having a clear vision and promoting it with integrity.

Promote a clear vision

Without a leader’s thorough commitment to a vision and ability to demonstrate that commitment visibly through one’s personal life, nothing can be achieved. Lean Six Sigma and any other initiative will fail if top management is not fully committed. Lincoln believed in the pursuit of liberty by all and in the premise of equality for everyone.

Through this belief, he was able to articulate and create a strong shared value that slavery was fundamentally wrong and instill this through persuasion and preaching. All his actions reflected his conviction.

Leaders need to bear in mind that if they expect to bring about change through operational excellence undertakings like lean Six Sigma, they must show greater commitment than their subordinates. Lincoln also believed right makes might, and it requires more courage to do right than wrong, according to the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Lincoln knew it is more important to be respected as being fair than being liked. He also believed some principles should not be compromised at any cost, and he went out of his way to explain such positions and convince others. This bring us to the second principle we learn from him in applying lean Six Sigma leadership principles: respect for people.

Show respect for people

Lincoln believed in the goodness of most people. He knew in their hearts, people want to do well to others, and that most hold faith in the golden principle: Treat others as you would like to be treated. He firmly believed men and women will be ready to do anything when they are respected and their issues are heard. He also believed in being consistently fair with everyone and avoiding deals with dishonest people. He knew backbiting brings down a friendship, family, organization or nation. He believed vengeance and unkindness are emotions beneath the dignity of a leader, and famously stated, “What I face is too big for mal-ice!” (Lincoln on Leadership: Executive Strategies for Tough Times, by Donald T. Phillips). Knowing that an organization takes on the personality of the top leader, he cared for all his subordinates to inspire trust and foster innovative thinking.

One of the key tenets of lean Six Sigma leadership is to treat people with utmost respect. Lincoln was a master at making everyone under him feel relaxed. He was known to meet with generals and Cabinet members in their homes, offices and on the field where he felt they would be more at ease than at the White House in formal meetings. He convened a lot of meetings in the Navy Yard and at the War Department. His preference was always to meet his subordinates one-on-one on their own turf rather than give them instructions in a big meeting.

Lincoln also believed in maintaining the dignity of his sub-ordinates and understood that if trust between a leader and subordinates is destroyed, the subordinates will not be empowered and will stop contributing their best to further the vision and objectives of the organization. As observed by management researchers, many employees are disengaged at work as trust for their corporate leaders has eroded. Lean Six Sigma leadership is about finding ways to motivate and empower subordinates into continuous improvement and self-advancement, which can be learned well from Lincoln. Apart from showing the utmost respect for people, Lincoln also believed in the power of teams to get things done, the third principle of lean Six Sigma leadership learned from Lincoln

Create, nurture the best possible team

Lincoln was a one-term congressman considered to be a Washington outsider before he became president. His party men knew he was a compromise candidate among Republican stalwarts, especially William Seward and Salmon Chase, but who could not get the support of everyone. Lincoln realized he needed backing from Cabinet members and other skilled people to achieve his mammoth task. He invited Seward and Chase to join his Cabinet. Its unusual formation and functioning are well documented by Goodwin in “Team of Rivals.”

Most leaders and managers who become threatened by sub-ordinates tend to hire people who are not as skilled to avoid being challenged. This is not conducive in creating a continuous improvement culture in any organization using lean Six Sigma principles.

Two lessons that we can learn from his management of his Cabinet are:

  1. Everyone should come to a discussion with an open mind to learn other points of view.
  2. No one should have a silent disagreement that hampers their commitment to the team’s joint decision.

The idea of consensus creation where everyone is on board with the final decision and fully committed to implementing it has become a central idea of lean Six Sigma leadership that is worth adopting from Lincoln

There are situations where group communication does not prove effective. Those working on the front lines of an organization have some of the most valuable input to provide, yet are afraid of opening up in front of their peers for fear of being ridiculed by superiors and co-workers. One-on-one conversations between the leader and employees are a lean Six Sigma leadership way to motivate people into making suggestions and improving their work areas. Such conversations are also vital in the fourth tenet of lean Six Sigma leadership.

Find the right people; hold them accountable

Lincoln knew he had to crush the rebellion quickly to show the federal government was able to enforce the Constitution and establish that no state had the right to leave the Union. To control the disruption, Lincoln initially sought volunteer soldiers for three months and hoped his top general would be able to crush the rebellion. However, as months went by with nothing happening, he realized he needed a new general in command.

Lincoln appointed a promising new general, George McClellan, and gave him free latitude to carry out his orders to scuttle the uprising, but if he did not see results in four to five months, he would hold the general accountable and find someone else to do the job. Lincoln went through this process with 12 generals until he found Gen. Ulysses Grant, who then appointed Gens. William Sherman and Phil Sheridan. Together, they had the desire and tenacity to end the war.

Lincoln knew allowing the subordinate to choose his own team helped attract people with a strong interest in the mission. Even with the right people in the right job, he knew leadership cannot be delegated; he had to be close to the action to guide and lead his team. This brings us to the fifth tenet of lean Six Sigma leadership we can learn from Lincoln.

Be where the action is

Showing sincere interest in employees’ desire by understanding their motivation is a lean Six Sigma leadership tenet that can be learned well from Lincoln. To show a genuine interest in the central mission to his troops, Lincoln personally inspected every regiment of volunteers headed to the front. His personal secretary once noted it began to rain heavily while the president inspected troops marching toward the front lines, according to Phillips’ book.

Lincoln respected technology and knew what it could do for the war effort. His door was always open for people with ideas and opinions. During the Civil War, muskets were unreliable as the concept of interchangeable manufacturing had not been invented, and each had to be hand-loaded. Further, they did not have rifling in their barrels, making them accurate only up to a few yards. Many vendors came to show Lincoln how they had developed a better weapon. Knowing the right gun could change the war, he entertained them all with a patient ear during their demonstrations.

As the only U.S. president to obtain a patent, Lincoln also intuitively believed in being at the forefront where action happened, or as it is called in lean Six Sigma parlance, “going to the Gemba.” He personally toured fortifications and inspected weaponry on the front lines.

Lincoln put himself in the path of bodily danger, showed his unwavering dedication to the cause that he believed in and demonstrated a willingness to take the same risks he expected of his subordinates. This brings us to the sixth tenet of lean Six Sigma leadership that can be learned from Lincoln.

Create a blameless environment

Lincoln showed his understanding of human nature by telling his subordinates that if the plan failed, it was his failure; if it succeeded, the glory was all theirs. This made them take calculated risks as they knew that the boss was not shy to take blame if the idea did not work and they would be praised for taking a chance to do something radical.

Like in a lot of our modern-day organizations, if the superior cannot handle negative performance information and reprimands the messenger for bringing bad news, eventually all unsatisfactory things happening in an organization will never be known to the top managers. Providing a means to take risks and create a blameless environment is an important tenet of lean Six Sigma leadership demonstrated by Lincoln.

Work well with your partners

The seventh tenet of lean Six Sigma leadership is working well with your partners and helping them do their best to create a high-performance team. Lincoln used his passion for his-tory to help his team reach new heights. This allowed him to discuss strategies with them and motivate them to be innovative and daring. He also believed some things had to be ratified by Congress and he did not want to overreach. He was the only president to attend working sessions of Congress to get them on board for what he wanted to do and show a sense of urgency.

Lincoln believed in giving clear instructions to generals and on several occasions discussed strategies or actions to be under-taken, then handed them a piece of paper with the entire plan written out to allow them to follow his directions. Lean Six Sigma places significant importance on standard operating procedures and checklists; however, rarely do we take the trouble to spell out instructions for easy follow through. By doing so, the process can be streamlined and more effectively implemented by the team, a key component of the eighth tenet of lean Six Sigma leadership.

Do not let process be delayed

Lean Six Sigma is all about reducing lead time, and this attribute of Lincoln’s teaches how not to delay a process by unnecessarily requiring approvals. Lincoln knew that as an executive, he had to be process-oriented and constantly worked to develop better systems so his subordinates and customers waiting for the output were not delayed.

Unlike the common belief that only front-line employees need to be process-oriented, Lincoln believed everyone must be so. Often when managers play a vital role in the system, they cannot forget they have a solemn responsibility for keeping the process moving continuously so the next customer in the process is not delayed, delaying the entire process.

Create a sense of urgency

Lincoln provides us with wonderful lessons in lean Six Sigma leadership by showing us how a leader should promote a clear vision to achieve an organization’s objectives; to show respect for people to create and nurture the best possible team; to find the right person for the job and hold them accountable; to be on the front lines where the action happens; to create a blameless environment where people like to experiment and innovate; to work well with partners so that all benefit; and to satisfy the customer by not letting the process be delayed.

Through the study of how Lincoln used his burning plat-form, we can see how a leader’s mind can focus in on what is important and empower his subordinates to do the needful when the stakes are extremely high.