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Chain of Command: A Continuous Improvement Dilemma

Ask the Expert: Lean Leadership's Larry Fast discusses the roles and responsibilities of the plant-level continuous improvement manager and the corporate CI team.

Question: Currently our plant’s continuous improvement manager reports to the plant manager (me), with a dotted line reporting structure to the corporate CI team. The corporate CI team is angling to turn that around, have the CI resource report to them and making me the dotted line. I don’t like it. What do you think?

Answer: Good for you! You shouldn’t like it because it is wrong-headed thinking from the corporate office. I think about it like this: The plant manager is accountable for everything that happens or fails to happen at that location 24/7/365. One of the top three priorities, of course, is CI. Does this change in structure mean that the corporate staff is now accountable for the process improvements in the factory from long distance?  Do they get fired if the improvements don’t happen? Of course not. That’s why such a structure is ridiculous on its face.

The good news is that you work for a corporation that is putting their money where their mouth is on CI. The bad news is they don’t understand how to more effectively use the corporate resources. In my experience, the staffing at the corporate office should develop a consulting type relationship with the factories and their staffs. For example:

1. Do centralized education and training on common subjects where individual factories don’t have their own training resources (which, in my experience, is a high percentage). For example, training blackbelts and greenbelts at the corporate level can be a real positive way to support each operation’s basic needs—at least until they get the skill base established and can manage their future training needs themselves. Or, maybe after the baseline training is done, it still makes sense for the corporate office to schedule training sessions periodically to pick up the new hires and keep the burden out of the plants. This also serves to ensure consistency in content and presentation. The solution is typically decided based on the size and locations of the plants.

Having a master blackbelt at the corporate office often makes sense to do the training. When there aren’t current needs to train more blackbelts and greenbelts, this person is the team lead for major process commonality projects noted in item three, below. Doing training in the corporate office is also an opportunity for senior corporate leaders to weigh in with their commitment and support for CI. It’s important just to be visible to groups that otherwise would likely never have the chance to meet them. It’s an opportunity for the corporate leader to be perceived as a supportive, knowledgeable person and a leader to be respected.

Send in your questions for Ask the Expert: Lean Leadership. Larry Fast will take it from there.

For instance, I personally led a full day workshop for plant and DC managers at the corporate office and often had the CEO or other senior leaders do a welcome address prior to starting the workshop. It showed alignment and commitment from the corporate leadership team, which reinforced the priority CI had in the company. As you might imagine, this message was carried back to the facilities, and the word quickly spread. Everyone needed to know that this wasn’t the flavor of the month.

Once site managers’ training was complete, registration was opened up to plant functional managers and corporate staff at the headquarters. Once the first round of training was completed companywide HR collected names and locations of new employees until we had at least 20, and then the workshop would be delivered as part of their orientation.  

2. Depending on plant size, corporate and site management should scope out what blackbelt and greenbelt support is required based on plant size and improvement opportunities. I like a ratio of three greenbelts for every blackbelt. Obviously, small plants need fewer of both than large plants. But having the skill sets in place locally is critically important.

3. Corporate CI team members’ key role should be to coordinate/share important improvements in the field that can be applied in multiple locations. They have the visibility from their corporate vantage point and can “put legs” on great projects companywide. For example, in the many wire and cable plants I was responsible for in my career, many of them had the same basic extrusion equipment. Yes, there were a variety of minor differences in the products, but the same processes often could be used in all such locations. Except we found that they weren’t. Why? Because the culture historically had been that engineers (or about anyone else for that matter) rarely if ever talked to their counterparts in other locations. It simply never occurred to them. In some cases, it was actually discouraged by their bosses.

What a great opportunity for our corporate engineer, specializing in extrusion processes, to take the project of evaluating all the processes being used to make the same or very similar products. The mission then became piloting the new process that resulted to prove it in production and then taking the best practice to all other factories where it applied. No, they don’t show up and say, “Hi, I’m from corporate and I’m here to help.” We all know how that story ends. Instead, the corporate CI team works on creating positive working relationships with the plant managers, engineering manager, the engineers and machine operators. Most factory folks are happy to get help when it’s for the right reasons, is done the right way and is done without the corporate office taking all the credit. In my experience, the corporate engineers assigned to these impactful projects were most often welcomed into the plants. Why? Because the plants needed their help, and the people sent there parked their egos at the door and worked shoulder to shoulder with the locals for a common goal. It’s a beautiful thing. All that said, nobody on the corporate CI team was ever accountable for the subsequent performance. They had a support role. They had done their jobs. They simply weren’t in control of whether the local leadership and engineers would sustain the new processes and deliver the improvements that had been committed in the factory budget. The plant manager is accountable for that.

4. The last point goes without saying, but I’m saying it anyway. Make certain that your boss understands and supports the compelling reasons why it’s inappropriate to depend on corporate staff to lead the CI effort in his/her factory. The line organization is accountable, not a corporate staff group. You should “manage UP” with the boss, and then your boss should “manage UP!” the ladder to be sure that there is an equally committed senior manufacturing/operations executive who will make the case at the corporate leadership team level. Anything short of that, the outcome will be up for grabs when it should be a slam dunk. Good luck.

“If you want to change attitudes, start with a change in behavior.” --Katharine Hepburn, actress

“A step backward after making a wrong turn is a step in the right direction. --Kurt Vonnegut

Larry Fast is founder and president of Pathways to Manufacturing Excellence and a veteran of 35 years in the wire and cable industry. He is the author of The 12 Principles of Manufacturing Excellence, A Lean Leader's Guide to Achieving and Sustaining Excellence, 2nd. Edition.

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