People often ask me what to look for in a team leader—whether the person needs to have experience in that function, for example. And what I tell them is that the real thing to look for in a prospective team leader is their attitude—their willingness to learn (and then teach) lean with their team.
That’s why, in a manufacturing setting, value stream team leaders do not have to have a manufacturing background. That is traditional thinking, but not lean. A couple of your current foremen might make the transition, but I hate to say that it’s unlikely. People with a traditional manufacturing background tend to be experts in certain types of equipment and have been trained in a “make the forecast, just do what I say” mentality. Because of this background they often choose whatever it takes to make the numbers, and lose sight of more important lean goals and principles, like listening to and supporting their people.
What you want in a value stream team leader is a self-starting problem-solver capable of running a small to mid-sized business, because that is what you are giving them. This person will be responsible for not only making the product but for all your key metrics: customer service, inventory turns, productivity, quality and 5s and the visual workplace. In addition, they have to be team players capable of leading and being able to deal with people both above and below them. You can’t have them out there yelling at people and not listening to the inputs of all their associates.
Most importantly, team leaders have to be capable of training their team members in problem-solving to eliminate waste. They have to carry the lean message all the way down through the organization. They have to support and encourage their people. In addition they have to be able to interface with the customers, your sales force and inside sales.
It is possible to find internal candidates. Many of these skills are present in a number of your people. You just have to shake off your old way of thinking and stop trying to restrict people to traditional functional silos. Traditionally trained functional leaders have a hard time making the switch to value stream leaders.
I learned this during my time leading a lean turnaround at Wiremold. When we picked our first value stream (in our case, product family) team leaders I asked each of my senior staff to bring a list of the top five people in the organization that they believed could advance at least two levels, and who had the smarts and people skills to run a small business. These people would be responsible for day-to-day production of our various product families and report directly to the VP of Operations, with a strong dotted line to myself and my staff. As a result, the question of whether they had a strong manufacturing background was always there.
I explained that this was traditional thinking, and that folks needed to get over it. We ended up with a woman from inside sales, another from IT, a guy from marketing, our corporate auditor, a young engineer, and two of our existing functional foremen who displayed the right people skills. We made them sit out on the shop floor (very loudly) next to their equipment and their workers and it worked out great. They had to report on their progress on the companies’ five key measurements to me and my staff every Friday. This linked everyone together and focused the entire organization on the things that would improve our future results.
As part of the value stream teams we even split up our centralized shop floor (mechanical, industrial and electrical, for example) engineers and assigned them to the team leaders. We thought of them just as shop-floor engineers. We wanted them to get their hands dirty at least five times per day. We saw them as problem-solvers who should be constantly making things better for whatever team they were assigned to. If we had a big project that was overwhelming one team we could always ‘borrow’ a few engineers from the other teams to put more resources on it.
Many of these shop floor engineers were individuals we hired into Wiremold after we started down the lean path. We needed them to design new products using the QFD approach in order to give us the growth we targeted. We made a decision early on that we didn’t want to hire any engineers who had previously worked for batch companies. We felt that they would bring their batch thinking with them and we would have to spend a lot of time ‘unlearning’ them. As a result, we hired most of our engineers directly out of school. We made it a rule that they had to spend the first two years on the shop floor before they could design new products. We didn’t want them designing things we couldn’t build and we also needed to immerse them in our lean way of thinking. What was interesting was that when their two years were up, about half of them wanted to stay on the shop floor and delay their move to design. People said they were learning so much and having so much fun solving problems they didn’t want to leave. Of course we let them do it.
So the lesson is, don’t get bogged by traditional ways of thinking when you start down the lean path. Implementing lean is all about people. Your people are the only assets you have that can appreciate over time. Your responsibility is to make sure that they do. This should be a core principle that applies when choosing team leaders. In any lean transformation the thing you are trying to transform is the people. To do so, you must shift from a traditional, “make the monthly numbers” approach to a learning environment where everyone focuses on seeing and removing waste, and delivering more value to your customers. Don’t let traditional thinking about anything, especially leadership, hold you back.