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What is the Plant Manager’s Lean Leadership Role?

Jan. 21, 2014
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:  As our readers may recall, we divided a broad question about the roles of lean leadership into three groups:

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.

The first two responses addressed the roles of the senior corporate level and the division/business unit level. This time we’ll discuss the leadership roles of the plant managers and their teams in achieving and sustaining excellence under the umbrella of a corporate and business unit strategy of continuous improvement.

The plant manager’s responsibility is to execute the strategy by assessing what the significant few things are that must be improved first. Scarce resources, e.g. process engineers, IT programmers, supervisors, etc., must be assigned accordingly so as not to dilute their efforts and to help keep the rest of the organization focused as well. This is one of the biggest mistakes that plant leadership makes—they sign up for more than they can resource and end up over-promising and under-delivering—ultimately dying from “a thousand initiatives.”

If the business unit strategy is to become more cost competitive, then the site manager and the team must understand what the cost drivers are and where the waste is most significant. Their metrics should point them in the right direction with the help of the plant controller and other staff level managers. Typically the biggest opportunities come in one of these areas:

  • Improve the OEE by X % on the capacity constraint work centers
  • Improve internal quality, i.e. improve first-pass yield/reduce rejections & scrap
  • Improve unfavorable material usage
  • Improve supplier management on high usage raw materials

On the other hand, factories that already have a leading cost position might focus on improving customer service by improving their on-time delivery performance; their flexibility by reducing cycle times; improving dock audit processes; making test processes more robust, etc. The “localizing” of the execution plan at the plant level is a critical accountability for the plant manager. The definition of accountability I always used with the many plant managers I worked with over the years is this:

The Plant Manager’s Role©

“The corporate organization structure is a model that requires strong plant managers. Each must be a self-starter with his/her own continuous improvement agenda; with an in-depth understanding of the business such that the right structure and the right people are deployed; with an energy level and an attention-to-detail that routinely delivers the forecasted outcomes; with the mental discipline, persistence and confidence to effectively function in the matrix; with the vision and leadership to revolutionize the shop floor using Lean and Six Sigma tools and to create an Operator-Led Process Control (OLPC)© environment.”

Larry E. Fast
Founder and President
Pathways to Manufacturing Excellence

Or, more simply put, the plant manager is accountable for everything that happens or fails to happen at his/her location 24/7. It’s a no excuses environment.

With this kind of accountability, the leader is well-advised to be sure the right level of talent is present in the building. Are your process engineers at least lean & Six Sigma green belts? Do you have at least 1 black belt in the plant to assist with especially difficult challenges such as designed experiments, process capability studies and the like? Does your materials/supply chain/production planning manager have the functional expertise necessary to progressively lead the function while participating as a team player at the staff level?

Same question on HR, accounting, quality, etc. For example, an up-from-the-ranks planner may not be good enough anymore. You need an APICS-certified leader who can ensure the correct infrastructure and processes are in place to support excellence. Each functional leader should be an expert in their field and be able to take a holistic view of the plant. The plant manager must set the example by constantly providing the “big picture” and not allowing anyone in the plant to take a narrow, function-based view of the business. At the plant site the plant manager is the CEO and must represent senior leadership alignment.

Finally, all cylinders must be firing in order to achieve and sustain excellence. There is truth in the old adage, “a chain is as strong as its weakest link.”

Further, the plant manager must be certain that plant metrics are telling the team the unvarnished truth. Many plants I’ve been in, for example, fudge on their delivery performance reports to their customers, e.g. as long as the product ships within three days of the promised date then it’s not late. The plant manager and the rest of the team must assume the customer perspective on this and elevate their expectations. It’s not “ok” to ignore these kinds of paradigms from the '70s and '80s! The shipment is either on time or it isn’t.

This example suggests how all leaders in the plant should be thinking about their roles on the team. (For more details on staff manager roles see Chapters 14-21 in my book The 12 Principles of Manufacturing Excellence: A Leaders Guide to Achieving and Sustaining Excellence and how all of their collective efforts must add up to the commitments the plant manager made for the year to senior management. That’s the alignment that is required for the whole team, and your customers and shareholders, to win. And please don’t be defensive about this approach. It’s not personal. In God We Trust, all others bring data.  

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle (384-322 BC)

This completes the three parts of the first question we received from IW readers in order to kick off this new feature. We’ll respond to a new question next time and, please, keep your questions coming.

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