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How big should my lean promotion office be?

Michael Ballé
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Dear Gemba Coach

How large should my lean promotion office be if I want to achieve quickly a lean culture change? 

Hmm. How much yeast should you add to flour when baking bread if you want it to rise correctly? Tricky question – not enough, the dough won’t rise. Too much, it will rise too quickly and then collapse, as well as ruin the flavor. What is the problem we’re trying to solve here?

  • Are we trying to solve problems faster and so improve our processes?
  • Are we trying to get teams to own their workplaces and work methods so they perform better? (and come up with creative improvement ideas?)

I was on the Gemba recently of a fast (very fast, actually) growing software development firm that grew out of an agile culture and had invested heavily in supporting their development teams with agile coaches. The success of this firm argues for flooding your organization with lean coaches. But on the other hand, when you look at the specifics of the improvement efforts, many are coach-driven and not that engaging to employees, and few center on core competence software development topics (chasing side-issues instead). No easy answers.

The Taylorist vision of a lean program is that each working team should eradicate a few typical problems in order to perform better by taking the sand out of the cogwheels. The lean promotion officer takes some powerful tools from the lean toolbox, gets to work with a team, tackles the problem with them, shows them how it can be eliminated and moves on. The theory is that the team can then autonomously solve this type of problem.

The lean vision is that each team should learn to recognize the waste it generates in the process of adding value, study extensively its own work methods and come up with innovative ways of doing the work without the waste. To help the teams investigate the waste, it is taught a lean tool as a team self-study device. Using this tool, team members become better aware of how they work and learn to better master their work and work environment, which leads to smarter decisions and higher performance.

In the Taylorist vision, lean coaching is about creating space to fix the performance problems that never get fixed because the job (and the rework) takes all the available time. In lean, the coaching is there to create time to think to more deeply understand the work and carry it better during routine operations (thus reducing wasted time on useless work).

In both cases, the target should be one on-going kaizen effort by all teams at all times. With that in mind, do the math: if one lean officer can coach one (or two) teams a day, and teams have to be touched weekly (or every two weeks), there you have it.

Your Goal

On the hand, if the aim of lean is to make teams autonomous on improvement, the target remains one on-going kaizen in every team at all time, but the goal now is to get the team leader of each team to lead, support, and facilitate this kaizen effort. Originally, this is how the team leader function emerged at Toyota. According to Takehiko Harada, Ohno spotted the operators who spontaneously did kaizen and asked them to lead other teams in doing so. Progressively, the role became permanent and shifted to assisting production to keep the takt time, but leading quality circles is still a key responsibility for team leaders.

If we think that way, who should teach team leaders how to lead kaizen? Their supervisor, the group leader – and so on.

Lean is designed to work through the line to build relationships, get managers to go to the Gemba, and teach kaizen. One extreme is no coaches at all, and all the training occurs through the hierarchy. Yet, clearly, we’ve seen several cases, particularly at the start of a new venture, when Toyota will double each role with:

  • Trainers at team leader level
  • Coordinators (with HQ in Japan) at manager level
  • Sensei at senior manager level

No easy answers. According to the plant and its level of maturity, these “coaches” are more or less present. I doubt that there is a hard calculation, but, yes, when an operation runs into trouble, Toyota has the capability to send people in to “double” roles and train the line very intensely.

Deeper Issues

Which gets us to the deeper issue in your question: lean promotion officers to do … What? Toyota trainers are effective because, essentially, they teach people the job as much as they teach kaizen. They are experienced and knowledgeable about the work itself, not just the kaizen method. In most organizations, these people are extremely rare, and the temptation is to staff lean promotion officer offices with “lean tools” experts, not technical experts – in which case the impact will be very different.

The other peculiarity of how Toyota does it is that all levels of the food chain are trained, starting with the plant manager. In other organizations, what I often see is that lean coaches are sent to improve how teams operate but management is left untouched. This is very frustrating as middle-to-top managers will constantly ignore what the teams come up with, not solve deeper issues or undo, with decisions stemming from traditional cost-cutting thinking, much of the good work done on the ground.

If you’re considering staffing a lean promotion office, I’d consider then thinking about it the other way around, starting from the top:

  1. Who is the CEO’s Sensei? Is that you? Who is your Sensei? Since lean transformation starts with leadership, this is probably the biggest decision you will make, with the largest impact. To transform your organization, first you have to transform yourself, so everything else befalls out of whom you choose to help you do that.
  2. Who is going to train your functional directors? The management team is usually where lean programs fall apart. Are you going to do this yourself? Do you find Sensei for each of them?
  3. Who will train your workplace teams? How many trainers do you need? How do you make sure that they train teams at the job and not “lean tools” and where will you find them?
  4. Do you have a pull system in place for training the functional heads at pulling work across the company? Without it, workplace teams don’t know which problems are good problems to solve because they are instructive in learning to work better, and which problems are red herrings.

Lean thinking is organic, not mechanistic. Adding trainers at all levels will improve performance (1) if you have the right kind of people in mind, and (2) the organization knows what to expect. But on the other hand, if you expect an army of lean coaches to transform your organization without first having changed your mind yourself, all you’ll do is add another layer of distraction and bureaucracy to what teams already suffer from.

Practically, I would start with a choice of Sensei, coach first-hand the management team and see whether they start looking for Sensei by themselves (or if you have industrial operations, ask your Sensei to find a proper coach for each of your top operations guys), and then ask each of them to build an ad hoc program for their teams – different departments will have different needs. I’ve not come across yet a satisfying way of solving this problem, but the main pitfall to avoid is flooding your organization with non-technical experts that add more worries and work to frontline teams, rather than finding the technical trainers they need to learn to do the job better.

In the end, shouldn’t the question be “what should I train my teams at?” rather than “how many lean promotion officers should I have?”

7 Comments | Post a Comment
Mark Graban October 9, 2017

I don't understand what you mean by (and many readers mnight not know): "The Taylorist vision of a lean program..."

I didn't know Taylorists had a vision of Lean...

By Taylorist, do you mean breaking down systems into smaller components and units of work? That sounds like a recipe for suboptimizing systems to do all local small-problem improvement?

The theory is that the team can then autonomously”

You didn’t finish that thought…

If you mean the team can then autonomously improve, I guess a key question would be “how many cycles of learning by doing and coaching make a team capable to improve on their own?” As many cycles as are necessary?

Doesn’t the Lean vision mean that each team should make sure they are contributing to value stream improvement, not just departmental / team improvement?

"Who is the CEO’s sensei?"

You're lucky if you have a CEO who thinks they could benefit from a sensei.

Eric October 11, 2017

Mark makes some good points. Additionally, the topic of having technical expertise for each function in order to coach lean seems extremely limiting. I agree that you can't flood operations with folks that have a good understanding of some lean tools and expect any type of real learning or sustained improvement. If you have people well versed in focusing on customer value and respect for the operators, they can help teams find ways to drive improvements in their processes. Understanding the foundational concepts of lean and how to apply them to any process is in itself a technical expertise.

Michael Ballé October 12, 2017

Yes! It's a zen koan: what is the sound of one hand clapping? What was your face before your parents were born? How many lean taylorists are there?

Michael Ballé October 12, 2017

Or rather: how do you know if you're one? :^))))

Daniel October 12, 2017

Agree fully (i know not like me but hey) with the strategy of top down. In many organisations, CEO has no sensei and this continues downards. Middle management brings in a lean "coach" and while we make headway, those above adopt the attitude of well we are to busy doing other things but well done middle manager for getting better. Now leave us alone and just keep at it.

Thoughts on how to show those above that if they took more notice, participated, went on a gemba, something - that they might see and then lead radical improvement?

Michael Ballé October 12, 2017

Thanks Daniel,

My thoughts are that lean is not for everybody. Lean is about 1/ wanting to be more competitive or disruptive, and 2/ realizing that Toyota as special knowledge on how to do that (after all, they disrupted their industry to become #1) and so 3/ making a real effort to figure this out.


Half-hearted attempts of hiring "lean" coaches to drive improvement projects and squeez productivity out of teams (and pay a cut back to the internal or external consultants) have become an accepted way of doing business: hey look how hard i'm working at failing with honor.


But to work lean clearly has to be strategic, with a strong idea to reinvest gains into 1/ customer satisfaction (and competitive advantage), 2/ by improving everywhere and teamwork between everywhere by 3/ developing every person in better understanding their jobs (mainly through problem solving and kaizen). 


Not so hard when you've got your head screwed on the right way and don't mind disrupting existing bureaucracies and rituals for dynamic gains. Impossible if you're looking for local static optimization and negotiate fundamentals for fear of rocking the boat too much.

Chet Marchwinski October 13, 2017

In the third paragraph, the phrase "solve this type of problem," which was in Michael's original, was dropped during formatting. The sentence is fixed. I'm going to try different online spell check software to catch such deletions. -Ed.