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How Do the Problems of Continuous Improvement Professionals Differ from Those of Line Managers

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Dear Gemba Coach,

How do the lean-related problems or responsibilities of ci professionals differ from those of line managers or business unit managers?

That is a profound question that links back to one of the fundamental differences between lean and traditional management. The difficulty here is one of unspoken management assumptions, and hence hard to tackle precisely because they are not in the conversation to start with. I’ve addressed this issue before, so please bear with me as I try a different tack.

One underlying point here is how we understand “science” – yes, yes, I know, it sounds far fetched, but still, here it is. Taylor didn’t call his method to improve productivity taylorism, he called it “scientific management”. He analyzed and synthesized workflows (sound familiar?) in order to come up with the “one best way” that would then be applied by the workers. His approach of science was indeed empirical, as he studied the most effective workers, but what he sought was answers. Seeking answers from empirical research reflects the thinking framework of a Newtonian, pre-relativistic vision of science. In Taylor’s days, the universe was a huge machine that scientific research would uncover piece by piece, until the full works would be mapped and revealed in its full glory.

Consequently, mainstream management, developed on Taylorist principles thanks to Ford, GM, Bell and so on during the 1930s, has staff people (such as ci professionals in our modern terms) come up with answers which will then be taught (or forced) upon the line workers. In this representation of the enterprise, a senior manager delegates his or her productivity problem in two ways: first they task their staff specialists to figure out the most productive way to work and they task their line management to apply these most efficient processes. They don’t need to get into the details because they’ve delegated research into productivity to staff teams and they’ve delegated execution to line teams. I’m not knocking it, mind you, as this has given us (according to Peter Drucker) 3% compound productivity per year since Taylor’s days, but we can all see the current drawbacks in terms of huge waste.

Oddly enough, the original lean thinkers within Toyota also thought of their Toyota Production System as the application of scientific thinking to production. But we’re talking a different vision of science by then, one that values the questions more than the answers. In our current understanding of what science is, regardless of what pop magazines keep flogging, the role of scientists is to focus on the right questions – where answers are seen as gateways to new questions. Here’s how it works.

Improvement to measurement devices, usually because people are trying to answer an existing question more precisely, generates more questions. The difference between 99.5% and 99.9% right first time seems pretty tenuous, but if your measurement system is more precise, 5,000 ppm. is rather different from 1,000 ppm., and the boundaries now not so clear. The questions arising by trying to understand the gap between 1,000 ppm. and 5,000 ppm. will be very, very different than those from the gap between 99% OK and 100% OK. More precise instruments often lead to some serendipitous discoveries. For instance, say you’re making concrete walls for construction. Concrete walls typically require rework to hide the bubbles in the concrete. The question asked by lean thinking is: why the rework? There are many factors: the vibration of liquid concrete (where it occurs in the wall, and at what time of the day – when the guys are close to finish, they typically go faster, which creates bubbling), or the mix of stones and sand in the concrete mash and so on. This will lead you to formulate your theory of making right-first-time concrete, and only open up more questions, which then need more precise measurement: how do we measure vibration speed? How do we measure stones and san mix? At each stage the answers could be rigidified as a procedure, but that would also lock us into a quality level. Continuous improvement is about asking further and further questions. On the Gemba, there are two types of questions:

  1. What happens when we try to be more precise – add a decimal point to whatever our measurement currently is? Whenever we do this we realize that our mastery of the process needs refining.
  2. Do we correctly understand the physical fundamentals of the task? Whenever we ask this question we often discover how fuzzy our mental models are in the core understanding of what the process does.

Lean tradition is all about loving the questions, more than the answers themselves. Answers are opportunities for more questions. This can be frustrating when you’re an operational guy with deadlines and objectives and just trying to get through the day, but it touches rather fundamental assumptions about human beings. We’ll all agree that quality work depends on how much attention is paid to the task at hand. The closer the attention, the greater the quality. Conversely, loose attention usually causes sloppy work. There are two widely differing theories of how to support attention:

  1. Incentives: basically the carrot-and-stick approach of rewarding people for keeping focused and producing good work, and punishing them (or at least, blaming them) for not paying enough attention and performing unsatisfactorily.
  2. Questions: challenging people with specific questions about how to solve small or large problems in how they do their work keeps them interested in the work and focused on details, and their success as they progress on these challenges is motivating and compensates for the drudgery of day to day work.

This is not to say that recognition and rewards don’t matter, of course – everyone needs both sources of motivation. What lean practice has achieved is hit upon a source of intrinsic motivation. Forgive the jargon, but for half a century now social science has showed that extrinsic motivators (pay, status, etc.) has the main drawback of reducing the person’s interest on the task at hand and needs to be constantly fueled by more carrot (or more stick).

Since the 1960s companies and researchers alike have been searching for sources of intrinsic motivation – people driven by the enjoyment of the task itself, not the rewards the task brings – but although this sort of motivation is very obvious in some cases such as sports, science, start-ups, etc. it’s usually very hard to reproduce at an organizational level. Lean’s practice focus on question has two effects: first, people accept the need for standards and subscribe to them rather than fight them, since standards “clean the window” and remove many variables from the situation at hand, and secondly by focusing on kaizen, they naturally perform better on the task at hand. In order to keep fueling this form of motivation the issue is to keep supplying people with interesting kaizen projects, and to recognize and reward kaizen efforts as well as overall performance.

Through questions, lean management shows respect-for-humanity: respect for the profound need for autonomy and involvement in the organization of our own workplaces as well as the reality of the joy of creation. People are not just carrot-and-stick robots to command and control: they matter.

This distinction is at the heart of the understanding of staff versus line roles:





Gives answers and makes line apply them

Ask questions about applicability to local conditions and gets on with so-so work


Ask questions and helps with the problem solving process (PDCA)

Finds local answers and proves the validity of answers by showing improved performance

In the lean perspective, the continuous improvement staff role is very different from their line counterpart’s role. It’s hard to keep to the discipline, mostly because of the pressures of business and every one’s deep taylorist conditioning, but in ideal conditions CI officers are barred from bringing direct answers (explaining general principles is fair game). Their role is to:

  1. Master the investigation (kaizen) tools and teach them to line people so that they can themselves understand their own problems. This is like really understanding how to build a microscope (such as SMED, 5S, 4M etc.) and teach the doctor how to use it, so that the doctors understand the bacteria they’re looking at by themselves, not by reading a report.
  2. Master the general principles of lean in order to explain what kind of countermeasures we look for and what kind we need to avoid according to higher level challenges and principles.
  3. Spur an on-going flow of questions through the organization of Gemba visits, learning events and so on. Questions are motivating, but they’re also tough to face in high pressured environments, and the CI officer’s role is to keep challenging operations with the right questions to make line people progress.

Line’s role is completely different in terms of mastering standards and using the kaizen tools (taught by CI officers) to find their own local answers to the questions, and integrate these answers on their existing standards. Line managers have to manage teams and develop them in better using their work environments. This means:

  1. Making sure safety procedures are applied
  2. Achieving performance objectives
  3. Creating the proper conditions to achieve performance objectives by using 5S and TPM tools
  4. Developing work standards and training employees one by one to make sure they can perform at their job
  5. Supporting kaizen efforts (workshops, suggestions, problem-solving)
  6. Solving individual problems and taking care of team spirit

In an ideal world, line managers should be autonomous in asking the questions themselves, but this is often wishful thinking. In real life, operational managers are often beset by problems and pressures and just want to get the job done. Getting the job done by working correctly to standards is already a tall order and a great step forward for the company. Experience shows that mastery of standards is linked to kaizen efforts (in order to understand the why and wherefore of the standards). But it’s a lot to ask for a line manager to keep on exploring new questions, particularly when these don’t have any operational answers.

This is the essential (and often ingrate) role of a good CI officer. Back at the Gemba I know an automotive company currently being squeezed by terrible market conditions, customer pressure, technology shift and financial management. The CI relentlessly uses the lean tools to uncover huger wastes that were hidden by good results in the previous good times. He is rarely thanked for his efforts as most of the problems his questioning reveal are scary-huge, often deeply ingrained in the make-up of the company and have no immediate solutions. For managers busy paddling hard just to stay afloat every day, this is not always welcome. Nonetheless, though his persistence and patience, the company is improving and slowly solving its own problems. The previous CI officer, contrarily, had all the answers and kept hammering this in every one’s throats with little success – and kept complaining no one was listening.

Without a good CI officer, companies doing well get complacent and those doing poorly tend to stay locked in their mistakes. To answer the question specifically, the Continuous Officer’s role is to ask the most insightful questions through the most precise analysis tools, and then check that the kaizen move in the right direction whereas the line manager’s role it to strive to reach daily objectives by creating the right material and team conditions, and striving to answer the questions with his teams by experimenting on the job. In the poet’s words, the key to being a great CI officer is to learn to love the questions themselves.

3 Comments | Post a Comment
RalfLippold September 10, 2012

Dear Michael, 

many thanks for your article, and bringing up Taylor's work once again. 

In my perspective, and perspective either as a manager, or as an employee in the work process itself, the notion of deciphering the deeper root causes of variation is bound to Taylor as well as to the Lean. 

What makes the difference of what is meant to be tayloristic or lean is the attitude of the managers from lowest level to highest level to let got their notion of interfering in a process they really don't know.

Being on board at the very early stage for the new BMW plant in Leipzig I happened to be one of the first folks bringing the word "lean" to the table in 2003. Working in open networked communities spread across the production network all what counted to achieve the goals given was: transparency about the workprocesses, the data, information and knowledge of all involved without departmental doors. We all became "lean managers" of our very own processes, it only needed a bit of guidance of our bosses to lead this individual forces towards the larger goal on the horizon. 

What becomes a real challenge is when new people come on board, processes are set more or less to standards, and departments evolve with their natural need to hold their knowledge.

In the end it all comes down to a quesitoning culture, that is also willing to test the small experiments in order to improve the processes overall. 

Lean Thinking is all around, and reading Taylor's work certainly gives light to this.

Cheers, and thanks again from Dresden



Michael Ballé September 15, 2012

Thank you for your comment, and I completely agree - Taylors has been unjustly vilified, and his thinking was a real breakthrough as the time as well as a genuine attempt at reconciling management and workers.

I really believe we've not done enough to demonstrate how lean is post-Taylorist not anti-Taylorist, which is all about the distinction between Operations Standards (Taylorist) and then Standardized Work (Lean).

Good points, cheers!

Bob Sanchez October 12, 2012
This is one of the smartest, and easiest to read explanation on how problems differ between CI professionals and Line Managers.

As I work with my Managers, Supervisors and Team Leaders my focus is in each of them improve their questioning techniques and not just accept the first answer provided as the probable reason and or solution.

It has been a steady climb and with excellent results.

Teaching Line Managers to ask the 5 Why's has been one of my Team's greatest overall improvement.

Thanks for sharing this article.
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