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Can you help us define the role of team leader?

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Dear Gemba Coach

My lean team is creating a team leader role, and we are struggling to define this function accurately, not to mention that we are having trouble finding our places. Any advice?

I’d have to know more about your specific Gemba, but this is a frequent problem. For discussion’s sake I’ll assume that you have assembly cells in place and have stabilized teams in zones. As I’ve said before, the pre-requisite to team leaders is, well, teams. This may sound obvious, but I’ve seen far too many companies miss this step and then struggle with an organizational role that doesn’t make much Gemba sense.

As a first step, check to see if stable teams are clearly assigned to defined zones. This, in turn, means that you’re clear on your product/process matrix and have specified the value flows so that:

  • You have a team of people who always work together and
  • Makes a stable basket of products
  • In a defined zone where they run a set number of processes

When I visit plants I often observe operators who are constantly moved around during the day or the week. There are generally two main reasons for this. First, the MRP runs the plant and routes products through the processes according to its parameters, rather than value streams. Second, changeovers are difficult or dependent on setters and so on, so teams are not autonomous in changing production. As a result, shop-floor management, in an attempt to optimize the hourly cost, will tend to move operators around the shop to do work rather than solve the fundamental problem of giving eight hours of continuous work (with different products) to a stable team of operators.

Again, before we figure out what we need from team leaders, let’s explore what we expect from the team, and the team members themselves.

Start Here

As a very basic starting point, you should make sure that your shop floor organization guarantees that every person will be able to perform eight hours of standardized work in their shift.

This doesn’t mean that they have to work on the same part all shift long – or on the same station. For instance, the team can do part A for two hours with each member following standardized work for his or her amount of work, and then the team can change to part B using a standardized tool change sequence, and then they can produce part B according to the standardized work for part B. Although not always easy, within the shift, team members can also rotate around the cell, but still they move from following one standardized work to the next.

Once you have gotten to this point, you can start looking. If you stand for half an hour in one spot of your factory, you’ll probably see that you’re asking operators to do many wasteful tasks, such as deal with defective products or components that they have to identify and pull out of the process, produce too much of a component that is not immediately needed, do extra jobs that don’t add immediate value. You’ll also see that these wasteful activities intertwine into each other and result in wasted labor hours and unused machine capacity. This is not good for you, and it isn’t good for the people themselves either because it stops them from doing their job: producing good stuff at a regular pace.

Operators are constantly asked to do many other things than their main job. They’re often asked to fill in paperwork, control parts, do 5S, deal with some machine problems, and so on. So even at operator level, defining the person’s role can be tricky. I was discussing this issue recently with a Toyota plant VP and he told me they faced similar issues and were trying to clarify each employee’s minimum role. If we forget everything else, what is the minimum job this person has to perform?

At team member level, what they came up with is that the operator must, at the minimum:

  1. Follow standardized work.
  2. Conform to safety rules.
  3. Call out abnormalities.

Then, the role can be stretched with a fourth point:

      4. Reducing waste in the cycle time.

Now, as we all now, these points are neither simple nor immediate in most working environments. If you’ve tried to build parts for any length of time, you’ll find that standardized work is often hard to follow (some points are easy to miss, some specified actions are hard to do), safety rules easily skipped when you’re busy getting the work out, abnormalities easily missed as you’re flowing in the routine of repeating an operation again and again, and so on. In order to be able to succeed at these 3 (then 4) roles, team members need support: this is where the team leader comes in.

Team Secretary?

The team leader is an operator, not a manager. He or she will, in the course of a day, make some parts – replacing breaks, for example, or replacing missing people, or simply helping when the cell is late on schedule. Because this role is undefined, the temptation will be to off-load work from operators and from management on team leaders, who find themselves swamped with all the paperwork the ISO system can invent, and dealing with HR policies and so on. Team leaders hate that, and if they’re being perceived as the team’s secretary, they lose all credibility with the other team members. What then, should the team leaders’ minimum role be?

  1. Support every member in carrying out standardized work
  2. Support every member in conforming to safety rules
  3. Support every member in spotting abnormalities
  4. Involve members in looking for waste in their work cycle
  5. Watch out for upsetting fluctuations in the course of the work

The team leader can then be stretched with a sixth point:

  1. Re-balance the line to the takt

For instance, the team I mentioned showed me how a team leader was helping one operator on the line who had caused several quality problems without realizing it (spotted further down the line, a big no-no on a Toyota line). The leader was told by his group leader there was a problem on this station, and they’d narrowed it down to one shift and thus, one person.

The team leader then spent time going step-by-step through the standardized work to figure out with the member where something was going wrong, and couldn’t see anything. The operator was following the standardized work as he’d been taught. But still, he was creating problems. Eventually, the leader realized that the operator being unusually tall, at some stage of the process knelt on the supporting platform rather than stand. This changed the angle at which he used the screw gun, and created the problem. They then worked together to create a specific standardized work sequence for this person that took his own individual problem into account.

If you watch a Toyota line for any length of time, you’ll see, most of the time, the team leader respond to andon calls to:

  • Confirm with the operator whether the abnormality the person spotted is a defect or within acceptable parameters.
  • Help the operator when he or she is struggling with the line pace, and teach the correct way of following the standardized work.

The additional aspects of this minimum role are harder to see when walking through the plant. This minimum role is already quite challenging, and team leaders can be expected to succeed in it if they get the corresponding support from their group leader – the first level of management (often called managers or supervisors).

Their minimum role is then specified as:

  1. Making sure the standardized work exists and is followed
  2. Making sure safety rules make sense and are respected.
  3. Making sure abnormalities are visible and called out.
  4. Making sure operators are involved in waste-seeking in their work cycle.
  5. Supporting team leaders in dealing with fluctuations.
  6. Correctly balancing the line to the takt (given by the pull system).

In a lean environment, this last point is absolutely essential because we know that the most cost-efficient way to produce is to make sure production pace follows sales pace. The lean logic here is:

Sales pace determines production pace

Takt time levels out variation from short-term sales fluctuations

Takt time determines the amount of work per work station

Standardized work

What’s the Purpose?

This is how the conditions for standardized work are maintained throughout Takt time changes and product changes. As we can see, this angle of view also determines the “autonomy” the team should have. Autonomy in the lean sense means being able to follow standardized work (safety, quality, and cycle-time) autonomously, being able to carry out tool changes autonomously, and being able to improve standardized work autonomously. A far cry from self-directed teams, but, I’ve found, already a tall order.

Having said all of this, I completely understand your problem and empathize with your situation. Most Toyota practices have evolved organically from long struggles to improve automotive lines, so in many cases Toyota has already established pre-requisites for other reasons. Still, if one wants to lean one processes, following Toyota-inspired principles remains the best bet.

So, yes, in every plant I’ve worked with, at some point we take a deep breath and jump into the team leader issue – and it’s pure magic. But like many other lean tools, this needs to be put in the context of standardized work and kaizen. To answer your specific question, my advice would be to figure out what the minimum role of your team leaders should be: the purpose of their role – what they’ve got to get right if they have to forget everything else.

1 Comments | Post a Comment
Emily Merkle September 22, 2014
hi. in my experience, team leaders are proactive, not reactive with sr. management to develop standards - ethical and product/service-wise act as front-line communication with team bridge gap between dev & ops (ideally, DevOps) http://padawanmusing.com/devops-not-a-mystery/ mentor team actively help grow the company along with the team measure performance; give feedback; work with sr. team to optimize
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