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Ask Art: What to Look for in a Lean Team Leader

by Art Byrne
March 10, 2016

Ask Art: What to Look for in a Lean Team Leader

by Art Byrne
March 10, 2016 | Comments (8)

People often ask me what to look for in a team leader—whether the person needs to have experience in that function, for example. And what I tell them is that the real thing to look for in a prospective team leader is their attitude—their willingness to learn (and then teach) lean with their team.

That’s why, in a manufacturing setting, value stream team leaders do not have to have a manufacturing background. That is traditional thinking, but not lean. A couple of your current foremen might make the transition, but I hate to say that it’s unlikely. People with a traditional manufacturing background tend to be experts in certain types of equipment and have been trained in a "make the forecast, just do what I say" mentality. Because of this background they often choose whatever it takes to make the numbers, and lose sight of more important lean goals and principles, like listening to and supporting their people.

What you want in a value stream team leader is a self-starting problem-solver capable of running a small to mid-sized business, because that is what you are giving them. This person will be responsible for not only making the product but for all your key metrics: customer service, inventory turns, productivity, quality and 5s and the visual workplace. In addition, they have to be team players capable of leading and being able to deal with people both above and below them. You can’t have them out there yelling at people and not listening to the inputs of all their associates.

Most importantly, team leaders have to be capable of training their team members in problem-solving to eliminate waste. They have to carry the lean message all the way down through the organization. They have to support and encourage their people. In addition they have to be able to interface with the customers, your sales force and inside sales.

It is possible to find internal candidates. Many of these skills are present in a number of your people. You just have to shake off your old way of thinking and stop trying to restrict people to traditional functional silos. Traditionally trained functional leaders have a hard time making the switch to value stream leaders.

I learned this during my time leading a lean turnaround at Wiremold. When we picked our first value stream (in our case, product family) team leaders I asked each of my senior staff to bring a list of the top five people in the organization that they believed could advance at least two levels, and who had the smarts and people skills to run a small business. These people would be responsible for day-to-day production of our various product families and report directly to the VP of Operations, with a strong dotted line to myself and my staff. As a result, the question of whether they had a strong manufacturing background was always there.

I explained that this was traditional thinking, and that folks needed to get over it. We ended up with a woman from inside sales, another from IT, a guy from marketing, our corporate auditor, a young engineer, and two of our existing functional foremen who displayed the right people skills. We made them sit out on the shop floor (very loudly) next to their equipment and their workers and it worked out great. They had to report on their progress on the companies’ five key measurements to me and my staff every Friday. This linked everyone together and focused the entire organization on the things that would improve our future results.

As part of the value stream teams we even split up our centralized shop floor (mechanical, industrial and electrical, for example) engineers and assigned them to the team leaders. We thought of them just as shop-floor engineers. We wanted them to get their hands dirty at least five times per day. We saw them as problem-solvers who should be constantly making things better for whatever team they were assigned to. If we had a big project that was overwhelming one team we could always ‘borrow’ a few engineers from the other teams to put more resources on it.

Many of these shop floor engineers were individuals we hired into Wiremold after we started down the lean path. We needed them to design new products using the QFD approach in order to give us the growth we targeted. We made a decision early on that we didn’t want to hire any engineers who had previously worked for batch companies. We felt that they would bring their batch thinking with them and we would have to spend a lot of time ‘unlearning’ them. As a result, we hired most of our engineers directly out of school. We made it a rule that they had to spend the first two years on the shop floor before they could design new products. We didn’t want them designing things we couldn’t build and we also needed to immerse them in our lean way of thinking. What was interesting was that when their two years were up, about half of them wanted to stay on the shop floor and delay their move to design. People said they were learning so much and having so much fun solving problems they didn't want to leave. Of course we let them do it.

So the lesson is, don’t get bogged by traditional ways of thinking when you start down the lean path. Implementing lean is all about people. Your people are the only assets you have that can appreciate over time. Your responsibility is to make sure that they do. This should be a core principle that applies when choosing team leaders. In any lean transformation the thing you are trying to transform is the people. To do so, you must shift from a traditional, “make the monthly numbers” approach to a learning environment where everyone focuses on seeing and removing waste, and delivering more value to your customers. Don’t let traditional thinking about anything, especially leadership, hold you back.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  coaching,  leadership,  management
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8 Comments | Post a Comment
Luís Miguel Quiceno Cruz March 14, 2016

I think the most important thing is that the leaders of the teams train other members in tools that serve to eliminate waste. But the main problem is many leaders do not share the Lean principles, so this task becomes difficult.

Change agents are invited to lean principles are maintained and internalize to senior positions within the organization ipacto.

Excellent article Mr. Byrne.

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Art byrne March 14, 2016

Luis, it is unfortunate that you see this behavior. Lean leaders need to lead and this means to show others the way, to teach them lean thinking and help them learn to use the lean tools. It is not to simply give orders like managers in traditional companies do. You will have trouble making a lean turnaround in your company if the leaders don't lead. Thanks for your comment, Art.

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boris achramenko March 15, 2016
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Art, very interseting article,

I agree that fresh minds adopt the lean approace easier and with the right attitude they can make a great difference,

but many I witness that traditional batch-thinkers when transformed are more effective ambassidors of lean.

I think it's due to the emotional jorney they go through in the thinking transformation which gives them many tools to help other traditional minds make the shift.

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art byrne March 16, 2016
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Boris, thanks for your input. Your comment, while not the point I was trying to make, is a very good one. I have often found that some of the people who resist lean strongly at first, we call them "concrete heads", can become the best advocates for lean once you convert them. Therefore, while it is the leaders role to make sure that the true anchor draggers are removed in order for your lean turnaround to proceed, I would caution not to act too quickly as some of these people could become your best lean advocates.

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Andrew Parris March 23, 2016

Thanks, Art, for sharing the key requirements of a lean team leader and your personal experience of finding and starting on your lean journey with them with Wiremold. Very insightful and helpful.

I have read several lists/descriptions of characteristics of Lean Leaders. My own list slices these a bit differently, but boils down to essentially the same as yours.  :)

One thing I call out specifically is: Being an example. I consider it essential because it has to do with the integrity and humility of the leader. As we know, lean cannot be delegated, and one cannot pretend to be lean. The lean leader must be for others an example of a lean practitioner and learner - so convinced about lean that he applies it to his own work, and so committed to learning and growth that she shares with her team her own learning process and mistakes & insights along the way.

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art byrne March 23, 2016
1 Person AGREES with this reply

Andrew, thanks for your comments. I agree that the lean leader has to lead by example. You can only learn lean by doing it and this is doubly true for the leader. The leader has to be out front and hands on and be willing to share his/her learning and experiences with others. The role is more player coach than traditional manager. In fact to be successful the CEO has to be the companies lean zealot.

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Alexandre Cabral March 26, 2016

Despite any list of skills, what makes me interested in this post is the example of how to build a path to learners. I'm R&D manager in Telecoms industry and it's helpful to have insights on how to create opportunities to our engineers to have real sense of our customers needs.

One thing that I refuse to accept (to be honest) is that we can't transform old habits. Following the same principles shared in this post we can believe that despite any background, there are leaders with attitude to learn, to change and to be better.

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art byrne March 26, 2016

Alexandre, thanks for your comments. You are right to beleive that people can learn and transform old habits. Good leaders exist in every company. The problem is that traditional thinking tens to assign them to narrow functional roles that are hard to break out of. One thing you might find very helpful is to adopt the new product introduction approach called QFD [Quality Function Deployment]. It is a very organized lean approach that brings the voice of the customer into the development process early on. This can cut your development time by 75% and assure that new products will be successful because you had the customers input every step of the way. Good luck, Art.

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