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Why Leadership Needs to Drive the Bus

by John Maher
March 10, 2015

Why Leadership Needs to Drive the Bus

by John Maher
March 10, 2015 | Comments (4)

I’ve been working with supply chain professionals and manufacturing leaders my entire career. If there’s one thing I can say about successful ones, it’s this: Effective change agents in manufacturing invariably spring from a leadership culture that supports the people, not just the change – every step of the way.

Your metrics need to support the change, too. Recently, the operations side of a plant I was working with wanted to drive shop floor innovation through daily kaizen. Since kaizen activities would take place outside of directly working on product, it would incur some indirect labor hours that the finance group couldn’t recognize. They used “absorption costing”, absorbing direct labor into the cost of a finished good - a measurement practice that couldn’t account for indirect costs and didn’t support the innovation aspirations of the operations team. Clearly this company needed to make some changes to ensure their corporate metrics and lean initiatives were actually aligned.

What does a story like this tell us? It’s exciting to talk about bottom-up change and expect that a groundswell of individuals in virtually every level of the organizational chart can succeed with lean in spite of those C-suite executives who “just don’t get it.” But, in practice, this has to happen early on or there’s little to no chance of success. Ask yourself, who’s really driving this thing? Lean change can start from the bottom-up, I won’t say that it can’t, but the situation needs to flip quickly to leadership so leadership drives the bus. Why? Because at some point early on in your lean journey, your methods will start to conflict with some long-standing processes and metrics. These formerly sacrosanct topics will need to be addressed by leadership (those with the power to change them) before your journey can continue. Once leadership is on board, leadership can come from anywhere in the company. To prevent stagnation at a higher level, however, leaders must carry the torch of continuous improvement tirelessly and relentlessly.

Supporting Team Members On the Shop Floor

Gone are the days where leaders sit in their offices sending out directives. Today, leaders are responsible for training and mentoring their people. They equip them with the tools of continuous improvement and empower them to remove the obstacles that block their way. Here are some ways to do it:

  • Of machines and men (or women): Leaders who think of their production staff as extensions of their equipment are making a fatal error. Empowered people who feel their bosses care about keeping them on staff by growing their skills and offering development opportunities are the people who will drive the changes needed to make your business excel. This is where the shift happens to a lean culture - when the people doing the work have a full understanding of the lean toolkit so that they are practicing daily kaizen for continuous improvement. The companies that I have seen who are furthest along in the lean journey expect 80% of their improvements to come from those on the frontlines doing the work through daily, incremental improvements.
  • “Scaffolding” support: It’s a huge mistake to treat your people like their only role is to follow the standard operating procedures (SOPs) handed down from above and the only way they drive value is when their direct labor hours are absorbed into products. When you do this, you under-utilize the most valuable assets in your organization. It doesn’t happen overnight, but you must build the scaffolding needed to support your people by giving them the tools, confidence, and authority to make changes. It’s the people closest to the work – who know the most about the process – that provide the greatest innovation if you build the foundation on which they can innovate.
  • Training rolls on: Training should never stop. I hear so many complaints about the unending list of obstacles – no time, budget, where to begin, no senior-level support, and so on. But every moment you spend training your people yields ongoing hours saved in fixing mistakes, putting out fires, and time spent trying to explain your poor results to the powers that be. Senior leaders can start out leading kaizen events, but they need to mentor and train those doing the work. Equip people with the tools, confidence, and abilities to speak up when something’s wrong and show them how to look for solutions and take ownership of results. In this way, you are tuning up the “true improvement machine” on your shop floor and beyond.

Once leadership puts the necessary supports for their team members in place, this is where team empowerment comes in. This is what keeps continuous improvement alive and well. And this is the only way to fully utilize the talents and capabilities of people, your greatest asset. Give the people who are closest to the work the tools and support necessary to improve their work and they will astound you with their creativity and innovation.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  coaching,  culture,  leadership
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4 Comments | Post a Comment
Ken Hunt March 10, 2015

When it comes to training, we need to be careful not to fall into the trap of training being the end all-cure all when it comes to fixing problems. Much of the time the problems lie with  the Standard Work, and not the people dong the work, as they were trained to whatever the current standard is.

I'm not at all implying that training isn't a key element of Lean, just that we need to use it for the right purpose.

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John DiNicolantonio March 10, 2015

Ken brings up a good point.  Building on his point, we need to make sure training and learning occurs by doing.  Training by itself without actual practice does not work.  The person doing the work needs to be involved in creating the standard and in continuing to improve the standard.  When training is done in this way you have ownership and understanding.


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John Maher March 12, 2015

Ken and John,


Thank you for the comments.  I agree with both of you and appreciate your input.  My favorite type of training is pull-based and hands-on.  It doesn’t do much good to train in a conference room days, weeks, or months before the knowledge needs to be applied.  I have found the most effective time for someone to learn is when they have an immediate need to learn and an immediate opportunity to practice what they learn.  If they can be involved in developing and maintaining the material, then all the better.

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Olivier Bost March 12, 2015

Absolutely right : lean development is not an issue that top managementcan 'subcontract' to some specialist : it is our responsibility to be on the shopfloor helping the operators doing the job, making them confident with the standards, and developing them on problem solving. It works.

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