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Is a lean team leader a manager?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

How is a team leader not a manager?

Team leaders don’t evaluate, handle incentives or promote team members. Team members work with the team leader, not for the team leader. The team leader doesn’t supervise team members. He or she helps the team achieve its daily objectives and supports improvement efforts.

Let’s take a step back. I was awakened last night by a weird sound coming from my boiler. This boiler is an ancient, mysterious, and magical artifact that keeps the water hot in the summer and the heat on in the winter. I still haven’t figured out how it works, so I turned it off and in the morning called my boiler guy, who, thankfully, showed up. “Ah,” the man said after a five seconds glance, “probably these two pipes resonating.” Then he fumbled with the pipes and the noise went away. Hmm …

“I changed them during the last maintenance,” he explained. “It happens. But you were right to call me.” And then he had a quick look at the baffling icons on the control template, tsk-tsked, and changed one explaining that I should have the boiler in summer setting. He then proceeded to explain to me (one more time) about the various settings of the machine. He also gave me some tips about how to better organize the boiler room to make it easier to see how the machine worked. And left.

To my surprise, the guy had actually helped.

Boilers and Basics of Lean

What is the problem you’re trying to solve? Let’s assume that we have two lean basics right first:

  1. Production (whether assembly, running a shop, or coding software) is team based. The basic brick of the organization is five-to-seven stable teams of people working together on getting a job done, either in sequence or independently, but as a team.
  2. Work is pulled, hopefully by a kanban system: each team knows what they have to do, at best, job after job as the kanban cards are lined up, or, at worst, during the day by setting a daily plan.

What happens if someone on the team runs into a problem which will slow down the entire team and stop it from achieving what it intended for the day?

Managers are too busy with managerial stuff to be able to jump in and look at every detailed problem or issue. They will generalize problems, look at Paretos and such, and try to troubleshoot at their department’s level. That’s not going to help the team achieve its daily or hourly plan now!

One way to do it is to let the team solve its problems on its own – you guys talk to each other and get back on track. The lean way of doing that is having a special role, the team leader, to structure such moments more effectively.

If you struggle with your work, as I did with the boiler, the team leader is your first line of help. She’s there to:

  • Check whether this is a real problem or not.
  • Teach you how to do the work well.
  • Escalate the problem with management, if there is an issue beyond the team’s ability to fix.
  • Encourage and support kaizen thinking and initiatives.

Now, because teams are, well, teams, typically the team leader will also take on some duties such as:

  • Check that the workplace is in good start-up condition.
  • Lead team activities such as 5S so that the team owns its workplace.
  • Have a positive and friendly attitude to maintain good team spirit.
  • Get saddled with some (hopefully few) unavoidable admin duties.

An Unnecessary Expense?

If someone doesn’t show up, the team leader takes that position. If someone struggles with a part of the job, the team leader jumps in and helps. The team leader instructs newcomers in what is the right job (to standard) and how to do it right (standardized work). The team leader facilitates small group activities and initiates kaizen projects.

The team leader does not manage. Team leaders are not responsible for “controlling or administering their staff” as per a manager’s definition. The team leader does not hire or fire. They work with whoever is on the team. They’re there to help and lead, not command or control.

This is a great question because many of the firms I see embarking on lean programs consider the team leader role as an unnecessary expense they can look at later (often futzing the deeper issue of whether they do have stable teams to lead in the first place). Yet lean doesn’t make much sense without team leaders. They are the essential function to make lean work in terms of respect “developing everyone to the fullest of their abilities and helping them overcome the obstacles they face” and kaizen “challenging ourselves to small continuous steps for the better every day.”

There is, however, no set way to define a “team leader” job description. No two Toyota plants do it exactly the same way, and within the same plant, the role will differ considerably from production work, to administrative, IT, or engineering. The key thing is to ask yourself the question for each team: who jumps in to help when anyone here hits a snag?

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