Ritsuo Shingo, son of the great Shigeo Shingo, gave a keynote address during the 22nd annual International Shingo Conference this past week. And I know what you might be thinking – does Ritsuo know anything about lean or is he just the son of a lean icon? Both. He’s the real deal, former President, Toyota China and Hino Motors, China, among other things.

Mr. Shingo spoke on management. As one might expect, he also discussed continuous improvement. One of his lessons within that subject was “show them your back.” This is a metaphor for, “be a leader, not only in word, but in deed.”

Ritsuo, clearly a humble man, provided some personal examples of how he did just that during some start up activity in China. In order to set the tone, without beating anyone about the head regarding cost management, for example, Mr. Shingo opted for a used car and used office furniture. It’s pretty hard for your subordinates to go out and buy new stuff, when the leader has not. No words here, just action. This reminds me of the quote that is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, the 13th century founder of the Franciscan order, preacher and mystic, “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.”

While our gospel (meaning “good news”) is more about lean thinking and doing, this notion certainly makes sense. Which reminds me of another story as recounted in the Productivity Press book, The Shift to JIT. In August 1987 Taimei Takazaki, president of Akita Shindengen (semiconductor manufacturer), began to do all of his work standing up. As he did, eventually virtually all (even administration and support) within the company did the same. We know seated operations often are barriers to continuous flow. Standing operations are usually a great facilitator of flow – eliminating isolated islands and thus enabling multi-process operations, better work content balance among operators, etc. I myself used a stand desk years ago for the same leadership purpose.

There are many other similar examples – leaders following and posting their own leader standard work, spending time at the gemba, participating in kaizen activities, maintaining 5S in their office, applying PDCA checkpoint rigor to strategy deployment, moving offices to the gemba, eschewing cozy offices with doors and all the trappings for short-walled cubicles adjoining their teammates, eliminating executive parking spots, etc. It’s all part of showing your back. That’s a lot more compelling than the old, “do as I say, not as I do!”

Related post: Humility, or What Does Dirt Have to Do with Lean?