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How Do I Clarify Lean Roles and Responsibilities?

Michael Ballé
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Dear Gemba Coach,

Can you provide some guidance on splitting roles and responsibilities amongst the various hands-on leaders of the lean implementation (lean support group, operations managers, team leaders) in order to get the best mix of engagement and proper process?

Hmmm … this is a very interesting and very politically sensitive question - because of the senior commitment to one approach or another, a decision that is usually made before realizing the ins and outs of either approach (how do you get out of the signed deal with the consultant to run X number of kaizen events?). More than ever, the real underlying debate here is: what are we trying to achieve? To try and answer, I’ll oversimplify two extreme positions, and then we can look for compromises in the space in-between.

Most people will agree that better processes deliver better performance. Short of inventing ab nihilo a newer better process (which many IT vendors suggest), the lean approach is to eliminate waste from existing processes and in doing so improve them, which will improve performance. So far, so good, right? Common sense says that if we take waste out of the process, it will perform better, and so deliver better results. The obvious way to do so is to create a team of lean experts well versed in the lean tools, to line up every business process and to give the lean team the goal of hitting these processes one after the other until the entire business has been “leaned.” By now, experience has repeatedly shown that this lean team runs into trouble both with management and frontline staff, so it’s necessary to give them support.

Show Me the Money

In solving the problem of process performance this way, we generally end up with a lean support group which tackles shop-floor projects “championed” by a senior or middle-manager to deliver spot savings. It is expected that the accumulation of such savings will boost the bottom line. In this approach, most projects are successful and, in the first two years, the support group is highly motivated, well thought of, and learns a lot. As time goes by, two typical issues surface: (1) the lean “savings” can’t be found in the accounts at bottom-line level and (2) many of the process improvements have turned out to be unsustainable. At this stage, the organization typically casts around for solutions with, on the one hand, the senior lean leaders asking “sustainability” questions, and the lean experts finding out that after two years in a “lean” job, it’s hard to go back to the management line.

From very early on, the senseis have been telling us that lean is not about applying the tools to every process but developing the kaizen mindset in every employee. How would that impact the bottom-line? With this angle of view, people make processes, not the other way around (which does not invalidate that the process drives the behavior). The reasoning is the following: more competent people come up with smarter processes, which delivers superior results. In this perspective, waste elimination is the basic training tool to teach employees to better care for their customers, do their job more precisely and understand more deeply the underlying principles of their work.

Boss and Sensei

In the “JOB = work + kaizen” attitude, the line manager is directly responsible for kaizen. His or her mission is to develop his or her staff, and to do so by getting them to do kaizen and lean their own processes. In the purest form, there is no need for any lean support group as lean is what management does. When Art Smalley recalls his time at Toyota’s Kamigo plant, he describes being taught TPS by the engine shop’s manager Toomo “Tom” Harada – who has the dual role of boss and Sensei. Harada himself was a young engineer at the Kamigo plant when it was still run by Taiichi Ohno, its founding plant manager.

Now, few western managers would be up to both manage and teach kaizen to their staff, as few would have been trained that way by their own manager. In practice, when Toyota started transplanting plants out of its home base, the company developed a “coordinator” role. Every mid-level manager (starting with supervisors upwards) was doubled by someone from the mother plant in Japan whose role was to teach kaizen to the western manager – and to coordinate with Toyota City. Most transplants have a “shadow organization” of coordinators to train line managers to their kaizen role. This is not a permanent role – engineers from Toyota in Japan are given this three-year appointment to develop them and give them overseas experience. Any manager in a Toyota transplant would expect to deal with several coordinators during his or her time in the job.

Toyota also created a specialist “lean” group (the Operations Management Consulting Division – OMDD in Europe and TSSC in the US) in the sixties to help suppliers get started with kaizen. This group has evolved in various ways since then, and they would be considered to be the paratroopers of lean – if you need a shock treatment to get going with kaizen, these experts will coach you through projects to teach you the ropes of TPS. Now that does sound like a Lean Support Group, but the underlying thinking is very different. The idea is not to generate results, but to teach. One of my senseis who works for an automotive supplier has been coached continuously for twenty years by OMCD experts, and in some cases doing projects in plants which did not even deliver parts to Toyota.

The point is that between the two extreme positions of on one hand (i) managers manage and lean specialists come in at shop floor level to lean the waste out of their processes (so they can go on managing) and (ii) there is no lean support group because to it managing means improving and it’s managers main job is to teach kaizen to their teams (which is where the team leader comes in as the lead operators to maintain standards and facilitate kaizen), every company, starting where it does, has to find a working organizational design to get moving.

What I’ve learned from studying many lean programs and how Toyota goes about it with suppliers is that the key person to develop lean is the plant manager (or the corresponding unit manager in service operations). Consequently, I frame the question you’re asking in terms of: how can I best develop plant managers. In practice, we often end up with a variety of mechanisms:


1.      Senior management visits with a Sensei to challenge the plant manager and define areas to work on and overall objectives

2.      Personal coaching of the plant manager by an internal lean expert to help him or her understand the details of the tools and their applications in specific shop floor situations

3.      A full-time lean specialist working for the plant manager, coached by the corporate lean expert, to train supervisors to run their own kaizen workshops

4.      A community of practice of plant managers to support yokoten within the company (both sharing and competing to obtain results).

Plan for Every Manager

There are no cookie-cutter organizational solutions and every company has to reach the proper balance between staff and line roles. For what it’s worth, my take is that the operations manager, plant manager, supervisor, team leader line bear the entire responsibility for getting results by running operations day to day AND doing kaizen. Now, this is a rather tall order, and they often need support. I believe the form this support takes should be ad hoc: whether an internal specialist group, external consultants, trainers, access to a Sensei. Most organizations I see run into trouble when they devise a one-size-fits all program irrespective of the training needs of each individual manager.

I don’t know how to answer the question other than by suggesting to try and develop a “plan for every manager” and think on a case by case basis of what kind of support they would need to develop lean thinking. In many cases, the organizations would be very reticent to a tailored approach to lean learning (and would need to control the process tighter), but starting from the learning needs of managers is the best way I can think of to design support roles and responsibilities which will truly engage the line management in their kaizen roles.

1 Comments | Post a Comment
Christie Pfingsten September 1, 2010

Is my office bugged?  Once again this could not have come at a better time!

Christie P.