Lean Transformations Group

You Only See What You Have Learned to See

In July I had the opportunity to listen to Leif Oestling, former CEO of Scania AB (1994 – 2015) and more recently the head of the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, speak in a radio program. Oestling is an exemplary leader and role model because, at least to me, it seems he is fully prepared to “unlearn” and embrace new ways of “seeing” and understanding what he does not grasp.

It’s important to note that in the early 90s, Scania belonged to the SAAB Scania Group. The automotive division SAAB was a true problem area. Thankfully, Leif and his team members reached out to Toyota and were eventually invited to visit Toyota's Lexington, Kentucky factory. If you compare the SAAB and Toyota factories, the two were similar in terms of size and number of employees, but the Toyota factory was able to produce four times as many vehicles as SAAB. Also, the number of quality issues per thousand vehicles was very low compared to SAAB. And when you talked to people in at the Lexington factory, you found no evidence of stress. On the contrary, people sounded happy and staff turnover was low. Sick leave was significantly lower than at SAAB. All of these things are signs of a healthy organization and a healthy work culture.

But how was this possible?

Reflecting on his time visiting Toyota, “We did not understand what we saw!” Leif said. The leadership style demonstrated at Toyota was truly engaging, respectful, and “inclusive”.

Under the leadership of Leif, Scania’s relationship developed with Toyota in the following years. This, coupled with some external coaching support, made for a terrific learning journey. More than anything, Scania focused on management training, training, and more training. What did it take for leaders at all levels to work most effectively with other team members within the organization? What did managers need to learn about leadership, problem solving, and work design?

Scania decided to direct its company-wide focus on:

  • Customer value
  • Respect for people, and
  • Quality


As my colleague Jim Luckman writes in his new book which he co-authored with Olga Flory, Transforming Leader Paradigms, for Leif and others, this required moving from a blanket solution focused change paradigm to something closer to “problem-solving for complexity.” This shift helped Scania team members work together to develop a new and improved work culture.

Specifically, it looked like this:

  • Training on leadership behaviours demonstrating respect and building mutual trust,
  • Supporting and encouraging employees to identify and signal for problems,
  • Solving problems together with employees where the problem has occurred.

Over the course of the next six years, Scania was able to triple its output in terms of number of vehicles per employee Scania is and has always been at the top of its industry in terms of profitability...

Back in 2000, when I first became intrigued about what I was reading and learning about the Toyota Production System, Toyota’s work culture, and Lean, I spent almost four years just getting comfortable learning what it might take to support organizations in their Lean transformation efforts. My enthusiasm for helping leaders and organizations create healthier work cultures through building a platform for change (rather than implementing a change “program”) has never wavered. Over the years it has become even more clear to me that unless we meet leaders who sincerely want to enter a change journey of their own, starting with themselves, our change work will be very cumbersome.

What an incredible statement of humility: “We did not understand what we saw.” Look where it has led Scania. I would like to hear these words from more leaders today.

So again, I highly recommend Transforming Leader Paradigms (Routledge, June 2019) as it helps all of us reflect: Who do we want to be as leaders? Who do we want to see when we look in the mirror? This book is a must read if you are in a leadership position or if you are looking for better leadership models.

“We don’t know what we don’t know,” and “we only see what we have learned to see!” What have you learned to see about leadership over the years? How is your view changing?

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