Eight Ways to Mess up the Lean Function...and Sabotage the Transformation

The lean function, a.k.a. kaizen promotion office (KPO), operation excellence group, JIT promotion office, company (fill in the name here) lean business system office, continuous improvement office, etc., is a critical resource in any successful lean transformation effort. The KPO does and supports a bunch of necessary stuff, including: change management, people development, daily kaizen deployment, kaizen event management, lean business system curriculum development, and kaizen office management.

If that's the case, why does leadership get the KPO so wrong, so often?

Often the root cause lies somewhere in the leadership doesn't know what it doesn't know region. True transformation is expansive and very, very hard.

Deploying the lean function in Seal Team 6 style, with little or no attention to the rest of lean implementation "details," and expecting great things is fantasy stuff. Consistent with that notion, there are a bunch of ways to misapply the KPO and screw up the lean transformation. Here are eight ways, among many:

  • Skimp on staffing the lean team. A "rule of thumb" for staffing the KPO is 1%-2% of total company/site headcount. George Koenigsaecker even suggests that the KPO complement should be as much as 3% of the population. For non-lean thinkers, this seems like an outrageous misappropriation of resources.
  • Resource the lean function "late" in the transformation. This one is akin to skimping. When the KPO team is built well after the lean launch, there's a lot catching up to do in the area of selection, training and development, and deployment. The lean function needs to be ahead of the curve, not behind it.
  • Pick the wrong folks for the group. The quality assurance guy does not necessarily always equal the KPO guy. KPO members should be selected based upon core competencies (like group leadership, change management, etc.), passion and, absent lean technical skills, lean technical aptitude. Poor selection means a lack of lean function effectiveness and, eventually, a "do-over." Do it right the first time.
  • Abdicate lean leadership to the KPO. Leadership, while often a shared responsibility, cannot be abdicated...especially when it comes to a lean transformation. Stakeholders can smell superficial leadership a mile away. A good OpEx team will serve as effective change agents, but they can't be the only ones. Batch-head leaders are batch-heads, even if the lean function reports to them.
  • Have the CI guys deliver all of the lean training. It's powerful stuff when the leader learns and then trains their team in lean principles (at least the basics). When it's all outsourced to the KPO, there's little skin in the game.
  • Stick the OpEx team with the kaizen newspaper items. Pretty obvious here - transferring follow-through on post kaizen activity to the CI team instead of the stakeholders kills ownership, engagement and learning.
  • Turn the lean business system office into auditors. When the JIT Promotion folks serve as the routine 5S or lean assessment auditors, without stakeholder engagement, they may be seen more as "gotcha" guys, a plain nuisance, or even worse, totally inconsequential purveyors of the program of the month.
  • Hold the KPO, and only the KPO, accountable. There's nothing like it when the lean function, and only the lean function, takes the heat for a lack of lean implementation progress. All of the other leaders quickly understand that their commitment is optional and there is always a designated scapegoat when the going gets tough.

So, what am I missing? Related posts: Who’s Most Responsible for KPO Development? The KPO!, The Kaizen Promotion Office Does What? 8 Critical Deliverables

There are 6 Comments

markrhamel's picture

Hi Dale,

Thanks for the comment. I'm glad that it helped confirm your thoughts (it's good to know that you're not crazy!!...unless of course, we're both crazy). Best of luck with your change management mission.

Best regards,

John Hunter's picture

Good points. I think it is most important to have on staff experts focused on lean when the company is transforming. Once you have hundreds of people that understand lean well and have been applying it, having the expert group becomes less important (I know many people don't like having the separate experts at all - it should be part of normal work).

I understand your point about having supervisors... do some training... I think that concept has merit. There are big risks though in misunderstandings being exaggerated each time you go away from experts (and really many places don't even have 1 real expert - they have someone that already has significant enough misunderstandings that even their training is creating issues).

Deming was extremely wary of train the trainer. Being a Deming guy that carries over to me. I am more willing to compromise on this point that others (I do understand the appeal - the one you make and the budgetary one is also real in many places). But I still feel there are real risks and significant steps should be taken to counter those risks. This can be done. Visual work instruction kinds of things for training...

markrhamel's picture

Hi John,

Thanks for the comment!

Yup, you and Deming have it right about train-the-trainer risks. That said, I believe that some of the fundamental stuff should be delivered by way of trained trainers. It's very powerful when the manager or team leader trains his/her folks on lean 101, 5S, basic problem-solving, etc. It forces the trained trainer to often go much deeper than they otherwise would and it serves as a signal to the team that the organization is serious.

Best regards,

markrhamel's picture

Hi David,

Thanks for the comment. Excellent points and undoubtedly one or more of the root causes for lean function misapplication.

Best regards,

David M. Kasprzak's picture

Hi, Mark,

Good post. I think there's something we can add to the list: Fail to understand Lean's foundation is a philosophy of human behavior, and not a system of tools to be adopted.

I think what many call the "people side" of Lean is really the foundation for everything in Lean - and may be the foundation for every process improvement or workplace reform method ever devised. (See the link to my post below for more on that.).

Lean is seen as yet another project to be "driven," not a paradigm shift in philosophy to be adopted. Typical of our much-maligned management practices, these folks show "leadership" by appointing someone else to the task and demanding results. This fails to make the conduct of the work, especially something as complex as a fundamental change in operating philosophy, a shared, equal partnership between both managers and staff.

A great dose of humility is needed, and a change in the perception of management as a function responsible for increasing the pressure on people in order to drive results, to a function based on relieving the pressure on people in order to obtain results.

Dale Savage's picture

Thanks for the post, Mark. You have just confirmed what I have already known about why our company has not made more advancement in a Lean transformation. I think that we have hit about 80% of what not to do. I have been working on getting some of these things changed but those changes are a transformation in itself. But, I do see promise and some forward movement. Today is the best day to take that first step on the path of improvement and transformation.