Legendary lean practitioner Art Byrne says he didn't have to accept excuses from employees when he requested dramatic improvements on the plant floor. That's because Byrne had become a "lean expert" and knew what type of changes were possible.

"The CEO has to be comfortable making other people uncomfortable in order to get big change," says the former Wiremold Co. CEO. "That's part of the reason you want to be a lean expert."

Byrne, who now serves as operating partner at private equity firm J.W. Childs Associates, helped turn around wiring and cable products manufacturer Wiremold in the 1990s using lean as the foundation. He recalls a situation at Wiremold, since acquired by France's Legrand SA, in which he challenged plant-floor workers to cut a machine setup time from 14 hours to less than 10 minutes.

See Also: Lean Manufacturing Leadership Best Practices

Initially, employees told Byrne it wasn't possible and thought he was "nuts," Byrne says. But after several kaizens and machine alterations, the plant reduced setup time for the large rolling mill to six minutes. A CEO less knowledgeable about lean may have accepted the employees' initial response, and no changes would have occurred, Byrne says.

An Ariens tool and die employee works on a die.  Lean manufacturing helped the company move from a batch-driven environment to continuous flow.  

The CEO's role in lean management hasn't always been as active as Byrne describes. Such a lack of direct involvement means many manufacturers are not realizing the full benefits of lean. Most CEOs are simply delegating responsibility down the workforce ladder to accomplish lean results, says Jake Stiles, president and co-partner of lean executive search firm Stiles Associates. These CEOs often view lean as a tool rather than a business philosophy.

Focusing on tools, such as the 5S organization method, will produce limited results because the company culture still has not changed, says lean consultant Mike Micklewright, president of process improvement consulting firm Quality Quest Inc. While a CEO doesn't always have to be directly involved in lean activities, such as kaizen events, the company's top executive should be visible in the lean process and continually asking questions, he says.

"If you manage [lean] from the boardroom or the conference room, you don't get the full picture," Micklewright explains. CEOs should serve as a lean coach or mentor to key staff members, not only empowering the employees but holding them accountable for their results, Micklewright says.