Is a Director of Lean Initiatives a Positive or a Negative?

March 4, 2014
ASK THE EXPERT: LEAN LEADERSHIP  Have a question about lean leadership? Let Larry Fast tackle it for you.

QUESTION: Is a “Director of Lean Initiatives” (or something similar) a positive, i.e. provides a full time lean champion; or a negative, i.e. makes lean somebody else’s problem, for a lean implementation?

ANSWER:  It’s a good question and one that I would answer:  “It depends.”  It’s all about leadership and how they charter the role.  Ideally, this lean expert (Blackbelt or Master Black Belt) would become the sensei for the plant or company.  As such, this person would assess the skills of those in the organization who will be leading problem-solving activities.  With the help of the HR training partner, the sensei would deliver a training program to get the necessary people the skillset they need to be successful. 

Increasing the universe of capable people is arguably the most important first step when a business launches a new strategy.  Senior leaders stand up and say:  “We’re going to become a more customer-centric and data-driven enterprise!”   

Those receiving the message think, “Well, ok—but I need help learning formal problem solving tools and a different way of thinking to do my job of the future.”  And this person is correct.  Typically leaders find willing attitudes.  However that will quickly turn to frustration if we don’t back it up by providing the training and resources necessary to make our people capable.

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I hired a sensei to help launch our journey at General Cable.  His primary responsibility the first couple of years was training others.  As the networks of capable people grew in the plants, they became more self-sufficient in tackling their own issues.  At that juncture, the sensei could take on a follow-up role and continue training on an as-needed basis as new people came into the company. 

Where there weren’t sufficient numbers to do the training in a single plant/office, we’d schedule sessions for them in a certain geographic region or we’d bring the group into the corporate learning center as the situation dictated.   Often as the skill sets continued to increase, we could then dedicate the sensei to managing big impact projects at a corporate level, e.g. those issues that could affect multiple sites with the same solutions. 

Ultimately the sensei I hired was cycled into a rotation of line manufacturing positions because we no longer needed the role he was brought in to do, and he had high potential for greater responsibilities.  (He became the senior operations leader when I retired.)  Each location was now self-sufficient and there were standard training options that were administered locally.  The more universal training needs were done in the corporate learning center.  In other words, the function of the sensei was integrated into the infrastructure of the enterprise and each site had its own on-site sensei after a few years.

To address the negative part of the question, using a full time lean champion as the catch-all for all things lean is short-sighted and signals that the initiative is really short-term and tactical as opposed to long-term and strategic.  I categorically reject the notion that every opportunity related to lean gets thrown over the transom to a person or persons who are charged with putting on their superman outfits and dousing the fire. 

With the right people working on the right projects, some short-term benefits may result.  However, it will accomplish nothing in terms of building the right infrastructure in the business to achieve and sustain excellence, nor will it cause the required culture change to take place.  Instead management will just continue to reinforce the lack of ownership and accountability culture throughout the organization because they’ll continue to just call in superman to save the day. 

That’s a frustrating role for a real lean champion to be asked to play.  Real lean champions are in the fire-prevention business.  They seldom require a fire hose.

“Change your thoughts and you can change your world.” --   Norman Vincent Peale

About the Author

Larry Fast | Founder & President

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 Leader's Guide to Achieving and Sustaining Excellence," which was released in 2011 by CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group, as a Productivity Press book. It was a best seller in its category and a 2nd. Edition was published Sept. 24, 2015. It features a new Chapter 1 on leadership, various updates of anecdotes, and new electronic tools on the accompanying CD. At Belden, where he spent his first 25 years, Fast conceived and implemented a strategy for manufacturing excellence that substantially improved manufacturing quality, service and cost. He is retired from General Cable Corp., which he joined in 1997 to co-lead North American Operations. Fast later was named senior VP of North American Operations and a member of the corporate leadership team. By 2001 the first General Cable plant had won Top 25 recognition as one of the IndustryWeek Best Plants. By 2008, General Cable manufacturing plants had been recognized for 19 awards. Fast holds a bachelor of science degree in management and administration from Indiana University and is a graduate from Earlham College’s Institute for Executive Growth. He also completed the program for management development at the Harvard University School of Business in 1986.

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