Facilitative Leadership

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I recently had the opportunity to present a webinar for the Colorado Chapter of the American Production and Inventory Control Society (APICS). I enjoyed giving a talk on best practices for value stream mapping, but it got me thinking about the larger role that you as a Lean practitioner has within your company. The work that we do in improving our organizations is one part technical (we know and practice tools, techniques, and methods of process improvement) and one part leadership (after all, at the heart of what we do is guide people through change). So one part facilitator and one part leader; the term I decided to use for the talk was facilitative leadership.

A blend of skills

I think people too often think that they are not leaders in their company because they don't hold a formal leadership role in their jobs. Because you don't have direct reports or don't have "manager" in their title, maybe you succumb to the thought that you aren't a leader. I have always thought that even if you don't have positional authority that comes with a leadership position, you can absolutely still be a leader.

In the simplest terms, a leader shows the way or guides a group of people to somewhere or something. In most of our jobs, we're not going to physically go somewhere and so our responsibility as a guide is to take our group to some objective. As process improvers, that objective is to eliminate waste.

But being able to eliminate waste takes skill in first identifying that waste and then having the know-how in applying tools, techniques, or methods to get rid of that waste. This is where technical expertise in Lean or Six Sigma or any other process improvement methodology comes in. The collection of knowledge contained in these methods gives you the ability to see waste and also the knowledge on how to get rid of that waste.

Sharing the knowledge and skill that you have with others makes it easier for them to improve their own processes. Making something easier is what facilitators do. Although the setting might be facilitating in a group setting, facilitation is different from leadership because the objective in facilitation is to make the work easier for the group. Whereas in leadership, the goal is to get the group to get the work done.

The skills and objectives between a leader and a facilitator are different. And so if you can develop both skills, you can transform yourself into a different kind of leader I call a facilitative leader. The graphic below lists just a few skills that can be blended together to be this special kind of leader.

Being a facilitative leader

So how do you go about being a facilitative leader? Here are four actions to use as starting points.

Teach ... everything!

I think I pulled this motto off of a t-shirt somewhere, but I really like the message of the importance of sharing your knowledge. Being able to teach the knowledge and skills that you have not only increases the knowledge of people around you, but increases your standing in the company. How? If you teach enough, you'll be seen as an expert and as a result your credibility will increase. That bump in credibility will open doors for you in future opportunities.

Practice active listening

The listening skill is important for any kind of leader, facilitative or otherwise. Proper active listening entails listening attentively, paraphrasing and being able to repeat back what was said, and finally holding back judgement. This ability, if done correctly, creates an environment where people feel safe to share their thoughts and ideas.

If you can't create an environment where others' voices are heard, you won't get very far in terms of collaboration, participation, and group communication. All of these traits are necessary for a group to work well together and it starts with their leader listening to them.

Communicate (the vision)

It's great that you're listening and have created working environment among the team, but the next action is important to get the group to its destination. As the leader, you must communicate to the team where the group is headed or what the objective is. Being able to communicate that destination or objective to achieve is an important part of leadership.

Build a team that collaborates

How to make connections which result in working relationships across the group is the final action to think about in this list. As process improvers, we can't go it alone. Having the knowledge and skills in Lean management is great, but at the same time useless if you can't get others to partner with us. If your team doesn't work together, then your process improvement project has no hope.

Building collaborative relationships takes time and trust. It requires you to have set the tone in the group so that people will share their ideas and are not afraid that they'll be ignored, criticized, or ridiculed.


I think there's much more here to write and talk about. But for now, I'll leave you with a few resources to consider and think about as you lead your own teams through process improvement goals.

  • These are the slides that I presented at the Colorado Chapter of APICS on February 10, 2021.
  • Video recording of the talk is coming soon! (Once I get a copy, I'll post a link here.)
  • An excellent blog post that got me started on the concept of facilitative leadership.
  • An episode from the Craft of Consulting podcast the skill of facilitation.

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