Who's Responsible

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In reviewing my calendar, I find that I have taken eight gemba walks in the last five weeks. These ranged from manufacturing value streams in China, New York state, and Florida, to a healthcare value stream in Massachusetts, to regulatory value streams in Washington, DC, and Florida. At some point along every walk I stopped to ask a simple question: "Who - a person, not a department or function -- is responsible for this value stream?  That is, who designed it, who knows its current performance, who knows the gap between current performance and needed performance, and who has a plan to close the gap?" And, in every case, the answer was "no one." Yet all of the organizations stated that they were pursuing continuous improvement and each had a substantial improvement department.

These processes were probably consciously designed at some point long ago but then found their own path of least resistance as conditions changed to a point where they became organizational orphans. Many of the people touching the streams were acutely aware of problems at their touch point and eager to engage in making things better. However, no one seemed to be looking at the whole picture. And certainly no one had been designated by their organization to take responsibility for improving the stream from end-to-end.

As I look across the Lean Community today this failure to make anyone responsible for value streams from end to end is one of our biggest failings. Yet it could be quickly corrected. If the senior management of every organization would simply insist that every important value stream, whether for an internal or external customer, must have a "responsible person" overseeing its current and future states whose first task is to make them visible to everyone, we could all start on a new path toward improvement. And the CEO and COO could learn important lessons by taking gemba walks along these streams with the persons responsible.

But how to do this? First, we don’t need to reorganize. And, second, we don't need to create a whole new profession and department of process managers. What we do need to do is to look for the logical person in each organization to take on the task of leading a conversation about the current state of each value stream. This will require creating some type of map showing the current process and its current performance. It will also require the creation of a second map showing an improved value stream with a priority list of the countermeasures to put in place to achieve the new state. And, finally, it will require a discussion - indeed, a negotiation - with all of the vertical areas, departments, functions, and – in some cases -- firms the value stream crosses on its way to the customer.

This is a task for individuals assigned responsibility for core processes – preferably drawn from a part of the organization not touching these value streams - who are trained in their duties and continually supported by the improvement function. And here is an organizational bonus: Taking periodic, horizontal walks along value streams while also managing vertical tasks within a function as a "day" job is a great way to develop managers for jobs at the top of the organization where an ability to think both horizontally and vertically is critical (and usually lacking.)

To be clear, the hard part of taking process responsibility is not preparing the value stream map or prioritizing the countermeasures needed to improve value stream performance. (Everyone touching the stream will have ideas and technical help can be easily supplied by the improvement function.) The hard part is leading the conversation across the vertical functions to optimize the horizontal value stream, with the clear support of the CEO and the COO. And in some cases the CEO or COO will need to enter the discussion when the metrics for the vertical managers make optimization of the horizontal value streams impossible.

Looked at another way, the responsible person we need is a different type of chief engineer. In a lean product development organization the chief engineer guides his or her product through a development process involving many departments over which the chief engineer has no authority. This person doesn't do market research or product engineering or production engineering or purchasing. Instead, he or she makes sure that each of these functions is supporting the needs of each project. But who designed the marketing process and the product design process and the production design process and the purchasing process through which the product progresses on its way to launch? And who knows the current performance of these activities? And how knows how they connect? And who has an improvement plan? This is the missing, horizontal element in our approach to management that we now need to address.

Does anyone currently know the best way to do this? I think not, at least in the organizations I have visited. But that simply means that it is time for experiments. And I hope that as members of the Lean Community experiment I will soon be able to take gemba walks to verify that someone is responsible for each important process and that the current-state problem assessment and resulting action plan are leading to better and sustainable future states.

5 Comments | Post a Comment
Matthew Buchman July 7, 2011
Hi Jim,
I agree that I've observed this disease, orphaned bits and pieces of a process. Hadn't thought of it that way yet, though, so thank you. Is a partial solution perhaps: "If you are responsible for your section of the VS, part of your responsibility is also to make sure that it mates upstream and downstream with the next reponsible person in either direction." That would build a self-identifying gap mechanism.
Priscilla Cuddy July 8, 2011
Thanks for this wision.
While we navigate toward it, it seems that all of us in the VS can continuously seek horizontal knowledge and relationships.
Michael Orzen July 8, 2011


I agree completely with what you are saying. For years, I have likened the “value stream manager” to a unicorn – I have heard of them but never actually seen one. Two key challenges come to mind: 1) reward and recognition structures that optimize silos drive behavior and are extremely difficult to change; and 2) who has or should have the influence/authority to successfully take on this role? I think an effective value stream manager would lead from a position of credibility and influence, not solely title and tenure. They would need to perceive the current and potential flow of value horizontally as well as possess the humility to recognize there is much they don’t know. The political minefield in which they would be living would require patience, perseverance and a great deal of courage!

Mike Orzen

Mohan Boovaragan July 13, 2011


Completly agree with your views.I have been value stream manager for last 4 years.most of the functions dont understand who is the customer and what i need to accompolish,As you rightly mentioned each should have owner responsibility ,current state map ,Future state map and the gap to bridge..
Very nice article ..Thanks Jim ..

Peter Alfvin July 16, 2011
Hi Jim,

This is a timely posting for me because I've been working with my organization to clarify value stream responsibility as part of trying to apply the approach to continuous improvement outlined in Toyota Kata.

One of the pushback's I've received is from a highly collaborative team of managers who have said they want to have collective responsibility for certain value streams.

I should say that we're a software development organizaiton and have been using Scrum for some time, so the notion of a highly effective self-organized team taking collective responsibility for a team's deliverables is pretty well woven through our culture at this point.  I'm not saying this group of managers has achieved that state yet, but they certainly aspire to that.

Have you ever encountered this before?  Do you have any insights or opinions on it?

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