Airplane Oxygen Masks and Lean Leadership Responsibility

We've all heard the flight attendant's compulsory safety announcement regarding oxygen masks. Personally, I've grown pretty numb to the whole safety monologue.

Not a good thing.

During a relatively recent trip on a Southwest flight there was a refreshing twist to the typically sober announcement.

It went something like this, "In the event of a sudden loss in cabin pressure, oxygen masks will descend from the ceiling. Stop screaming, grab the mask, and pull it over your face. If you have a small child traveling with you, secure your mask before assisting with theirs. If you are traveling with two small children, decide now which one you love more."

Pretty funny.

But, the truth is there's a reason that the parent (or guardian) should don the mask first and THEN attend to his or her charge(s). The parent needs to maintain his mental and physical faculties so that he can effectively take care of others. This is not self-serving.

So, this leads (surprise, surprise!) to a lean metaphor.

Lean leaders need to put on the oxygen mask first.

The "oxygen" here is lean competency.

Jeffrey Liker and Gary Convis in their book, The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership: Achieving and Sustaining Excellence through Leadership Development, which I highly recommend, captures this notion well.

Their Toyota Way Leadership Model reflects the following. Please note the ORDER.

  1. Commit to Self-Development. Learn to live True North values through repeated learning cycles,
  2. Coach and Develop Others. See and challenge true potential in others through self-development learning cycles,
  3. Support Daily Kaizen. Build local capability throughout for daily management, and
  4. Create Vision and Align Goals. Create True North vision and align goals vertically and horizontally.

Leaders can't teach what they do not have. So, they must first put on the oxygen mask of understanding (or at least genuinely commit to and begin to walk the road to understanding) before they can effectively and credibly BEGIN to coach and develop others.

With that, good luck deciding which colleague you first assist with that oxygen mask thing.

Related posts: Book Review: Leading the Lean Enterprise Transformation, Why Do You Ask?, 12 Narrow Lean Gates

There are 9 Comments

Andrew Bishop's picture

Brilliant! We are all challenged to have a personal improvment plan. Echoes of Steven Covey all through this. For each of us, what is the target condition? (etc., etc., with thanks, as always to Mike Rother).

All seriousness aside, I also thought the "stop screaming" line from your Southwest Airlines story was particularly good advice we should all take to heart!

markrhamel's picture


Thanks for the comment and some sensei context - Mike Rother and the late Stephen Covey.

I hope none of us ever have to witness, and then use, dangling oxygen masks.

Best regards,

markrhamel's picture

Hi Mark,

The book's context is primarily Toyota and Dana Corporation (Convis went there post-TMMK). Because the principles are so universal and it's not nuts and bolts TPS systems and tools, it may (!?1) squeak by the "not healthcare filter." Mark, in any event, I think you will appreciate the book.

Best regards,

John B's picture

Thanks for the lesson. Heard similar but repeating it works as a memory jog. THX!

markrhamel's picture


Thanks for the comment. I know that I sometimes forget that self-development is primary in order to be an effective coach.

Best regards,

Dale Savage's picture

And those with whom you are working can also tell if you know what you are talking about or not. This is especially true when you get push-back from upper management. Those at lower levels in the company may follow your lead for awhile "because they have to" but unless you can lead both ways based on genuine knowledge, your "gains" will not be sustained. It will be like a boat going through a lake. There is a wake as the boat passes, but the water looks pretty much as it did before after the boat has gone past.

Thanks again, Mark, for your posts.

markrhamel's picture

Hi Dale,

Thanks for your comment. You are absolutely right. Folks can often just sense when their leaders are not competent in a lean transformation attempt. In such a change heavy environment, that makes a lot of people nervous. Without that trust in leadership competency (and credibility), there will be little risk taking. At the same time, it is appropriate for leaders to humbly acknowledge that they too are still learning and do not know all of the answers.

Best regards,

Mark Welch's picture

Curious about this book, Mark. Just wondering - does it speak from the manufacturing point of view predominantly or is it varied? I like these Toyota-based books, but I find that generally people in healthcare (my realm) are turned off by that. I realize that the principles are applicable irregardless of field, but in the same vein I figure manufacturing people wouldn't like to be constantly reading about healthcare examples.

Christian Paulsen's picture


Great lesson. It's true that leaders need to help themselves to they can help others. Thanks for sharing.

Best regards,