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Where's Your Lean Team?

Sept. 26, 2016
Where is your lean team placed in your organization, who should lead it and other basic questions that will determine the success or failure of your lean initiative.

Lean has evolved in every regard, and so resources that support lean must evolve. Therefore, I ask, where is your lean team? This is a question I get frequently from organizations, and solutions are increasingly creative.

1. Where should the lean team reside? Traditionally, most lean teams are housed in the manufacturing group, either reporting to a factory or to an executive in manufacturing. That is where most lean application has existed. But too often as those manufacturing resources cross onto the carpet, they bring manufacturing solutions to administrative problems.

Where the lean resources reside on the organizational chart is more than sending a message about where lean should be applied. It also provides access. How many levels of the organizational chart do you want someone to go through in order to get the lean help they need?

2. Centralize or decentralize? Both resources distributed throughout, or centralized as one team, have been successful. When you centralize, you gain several benefits. First, you improve consistency of lean by having a team that works together. Second, you have the opportunity to distribute those resources disproportionately based on strategic interest.

Alternatively, if you decentralize your lean resources, they will be more connected and responsive to leaders in the company who are trying to run the business. The result is lean resources being in high-demand and well-utilized. They are also able to coach “in the moment”, instead of coming in as an outside intervention - the lean thinker is there in the staff meeting or the hallway when the opportunity to coach surfaces.

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The majority of organizations make adjustments over time. Whichever you choose, build the process to overcome the weaknesses, be it better connectivity to the business, or to each other.

3. Who will lead it? There are too many characteristics of leadership to consider in this column, but the biggest question here is often a strategic choice. Do I select the person who understands lean better than anyone, or do I select the best leader I can find and let them learn lean?

Don’t give lean to someone as a last chance to prove they can lead (or not). Give lean to someone who is not just full of potential but is already fulfilling that potential. They will lead well, advancing lean application and often building new relationships for the lean team. And just as importantly, when they leave for another key role a few years later, they will bring with them everything they learned about lean.

Alternatively, sometimes an organization is suffering with too much basic lean, serving only as window dressing and check-the-box thinking. The journey is crying out for a lean thought-leader to bring them forward, advancing new ideas and holding people accountable for a vision of lean going beyond training and tools.

If the team is reporting to someone who has other duties as well, the question of who is still relevant. The qualities of the leader are far more important than what their other duties are and how well they fit.

4. How large a team? Everyone gives me the same answer: ideally, we will work ourselves out of a job. But I never really see that happening, so while it sounds good it isn’t really a practical part of the question. A large survey shared that companies serious about continuous improvement committed, on average, 1% of their resources to it. As a starting point, that actually seems about right.

The curve over time is that it often starts very small, just to get lean going. It grows to continue pushing while keeping up with the pulling demand. After a significant while, it begins to shrink again as the true ownership and activity is shifted to those performing the work.

Are there any easy answers? No, except that you need capable people with a passion for helping others. I’ve given you more questions than answers. Consider your options carefully, and don’t be afraid to make organizational changes that keep up with your own lean maturity.

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