Your lean culture depends on you providing the correct answer to this basic question: Who leads and owns the lean transformation? Who has the responsibility to create and sustain the culture that enables lean behaviors throughout the organization? I believe that there is only one appropriate answer to this question.
Excuse my simplistic reply, but leaders must lead. It’s so obvious, right? To the point of, “Why do we even need to talk about it?” However, in spite of this certainty, why do many company leaders choose to delegate this responsibility to a lean manager, lean department, operational excellence (OE) team or other functional individual or group?
Granted, the lean or OE team members are the subject matter experts—and if your company is just starting its lean journey, those may be the only individuals with any lean knowledge or experience. So this delegating of responsibility, at first glance, does appear valid, to the degree that the messaging from the company president to the leadership team might go like this…
“I’d like to introduce you to our new lean expert, Chris, who will be leading our lean program. Chris brings years of lean experience to our organization. Chris, and the team that Chris will be forming, will turn us into a lean organization. You know how important lean is, so give Chris your full support as Chris and her team lead us in this transformation.”
Put yourself in the position of a member of the leadership team who just heard the president’s introduction. You’ll likely be thinking, “Sure if I have time, I’ll help the new person out. I’d be glad to support Chris in her efforts. However, I am very busy. But that is why it is great having someone, or a whole lean team, dedicated to this. I just have way too many other things to do.”
You don’t see your job changing much. If someone walked in and asked who is leading lean around here, you now have someone to point to! And since you are in a “support” role to the transformation expert, in reality, you always have the choice to opt out … since, as we all know, you are a very busy person.
The above president’s speech may not even be spoken, but it is often implied, which is even more dangerous due to faulty assumptions.
Now let’s revisit the company president’s speech to the leadership team, but with a few modifications…
“As we lead our lean transformation, of course we’ll need help. For probably everyone here, along with the managers and supervisors that report to you, this is a new journey that we are leading. Let me introduce you to our new lean facilitator, Chris, who is here to help and support us, and the whole workforce, by teaching, coaching, guiding, advising, and at times, even reprimanding us as we learn and lead our organization in the transformation. Chris will be building a team to assure that she can provide the support to us and our associates.”
Now consider if you are sitting there listening to this second speech. The message is clear and completely different. The leadership team owns and leads this transformation. The three words, “as we lead,” are rather unambiguous. And the new lean expert is here to support and help you.
It is your job to engage your team in ongoing improvement. It is your job to work with your leader cohorts to put new lean systems in place.
When you think about it logically, how could this responsibility be effectively handed off to a functional entity, even one with tons of lean experience? We want to engage the hearts and minds of every employee to improve processes and add ever-increasing value to customers. How can this possibly occur without leaders, at all levels, taking responsibility for creating the motivating environment to engage their teams? The lean or OE team can provide support, but obviously, you are the leader of your team.
If the above two scenarios were two separate organizations, which do you think has a better chance of creating a true lean culture of continuous improvement? It’s not even a close call … the scenario where the leaders lead with the invaluable support and guidance of the lean team. Leaders have always shaped culture, and a lean culture is no different.
Don’t get me wrong, a strong lean team that is mandated to get the company lean can get a lot done in concert with the inevitable early adopters and a few naturally lean-minded managers. But the result is typically what I call “spotty” lean where there are isolated islands of excellence with a high risk of backsliding. And typically, any progress only occurs on the production floor. The support areas such as engineering, finance, sales, etc. are usually content with opting out. This intermittent and haphazard application of lean minimizes the impact on the overall system that provides the product to a customer.
The logic of leaders must lead is unquestionable, but of course leaders need help. This is where the new lean subject matter expert plays a critical support role. There are several lean leader behaviors to be learned and applied, but the first step is providing clarity on who’s responsible to make this happen.
Lean involves everyone, but to create the environment which engages everyone, leaders must lead and own this responsibility. A lean transformation cannot be delegated. Again, as a leader, you shape the culture. It comes with the job, and though the most challenging part of the job, it is also the most rewarding.
Dave Rizzardo is the associate director of the Maryland World Class Consortia. Dave co-developed the Lean Peer Group service, which helps organizations develop a lean culture. He currently facilitates multiple groups and works directly with organizations in helping them on their lean journeys. He is the author of Lean - Let's Get It Right! How to Build a Culture of Continuous Improvement.