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What is the Senior Leadership Team’s Lean Leadership Role?

Dec. 9, 2013
ASK THE EXPERT: LEAN LEADERSHIP  Have a question about lean leadership? Let Larry Fast tackle it for you.

QUESTION: How do the roles of leaders at different levels of the hierarchy (e.g. CEO, COO, VP-Ops, Plant Manager, Production Superintendent, Supervisor, Team Leader) differ with respect to implementing lean?

ANSWER:  Holiday greetings to all!  I am pleased to kick off this new feature on IndustryWeek online to share my experiences and answer your questions focused around the topic of Lean Leadership!  I’m looking forward to having a fun journey with our readers while also trying to help U.S. manufacturing companies get better every day.  I strongly believe that manufacturing jobs are the core of the middle class and that manufacturing businesses must be good enough to compete globally.  It’s our responsibility as leaders to remove all of the obstacles (excuses?) to make that happen -- not just to survive but to thrive and grow!

From the first group of questions I received from Jill Jusko’s blog, two of them were around a common theme.   To paraphrase:

“What are the roles of Lean leaders and how do they differ based on their level in the organization’s hierarchy?”

Because of how broad and important this question is (and also because I want to keep the length of my responses reasonable each time) I’ll break this question into 3 groups and respond to the remaining parts in subsequent issues.  The 3 groups are:

1. Board of Directors, C-level executives, senior leadership team

2. General Managers, VPs of Mfg/Ops, Engineering, Quality, Supply Chain, etc. at Corporate Staff or at the Business Unit level

3. Plant Managers, Value Stream/Department Managers, Supervisors, Engineers, etc.

Senior Leadership:  While continuous improvement (i.e. Lean, et al) strategies are seldom initiated in the boardroom by the CEO, it should still start at the senior leadership team level.   Without top-level support from the beginning, those working at lower levels will become frustrated and far less effective if they have to go it alone.  That being the case, how we can get on the path to achieving and sustaining excellence; and what role do we need these most senior executives to fulfil at the very beginning to ensure our success?

My experience is that the senior Mfg/Ops executive on the Corporate Leadership Team must step up and assume the role of Corporate Champion!  This person is the most likely to be knowledgeable about the power of the strategy and the tools and culture necessary to implement it. He/she also sees the operational metrics and understands, at least at a high level, where the opportunities are.  They’ve already discussed the strategy idea with those in group # 2 at least at a high level and have their input.  He/she also has access to all the key leaders at corporate from whom support will be needed going forward.  Here are the early key actions that should be taken:

  • Discuss the need for a continuous improvement (call it what you will) strategy at the corporate level.  How does this strategy support the overall corporate goals?
  • Size the potential improvements in quality, service, cost and cash flow based on the execution of the strategy over the next 3-5 years.
  • “Socialize” your thinking with the senior peer group and solicit their open-mindedness and support before you approach the CEO.  It’ll take the entire leadership team to ultimately achieve and sustain enterprise excellence.  It only starts in manufacturing and then expands from there!
  • Present to the CEO at a leadership team meeting and ask for support to begin the journey.  (With the kind of improvement opportunities you’ll be sharing, who is going to tell you “no”?  That said, you should also have an idea about what the start-up costs will be re: training and the like.)
  • Ask for the opportunity to present at the next board meeting to seek their support as well and answer any questions.  (I also urge regular updates on progress to the board for the first couple of years.  Once you get traction and the results are becoming obvious, then a once/year update is recommended.)
  • Schedule a “big meeting” with your team (see group # 2 above) to formally kick-off the strategy and expect that group to carry it on to those in group # 3.
  • We’ll address the ongoing roles of this most senior group after a successful launch in a future entry. 

In a few hundred words it’s difficult to write this without making it sound “easy.”  Believe me it is not.  But it’s a good outline of how to get started with the preferred top-down process.  In our next feature we’ll pick up where we left off here and speak to the second group.

“Those who say it can’t be done need to get out of the way of the people who are already doing it!” -- Joel Barker, Futurist and Author

Larry E. Fast

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