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Leading Lean: Select the Right Champion

July 19, 2007
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The most common question we get is some version of “I have just been assigned as our lean champion; what should I do?” The next most common question is “I need to hire a lean champion; where do I find one?” Placing the right person in the right role is critical to a successful lean journey, so here are some key items to consider before going any further.

First consider whether you want to promote from within or hire from outside. You should be developing people at every level, and finding lean coaches is just selecting those best suited for the role. Early in the journey, this is much harder; it becomes much easier once you are well along. There are two learning curves for the coach. One is the learning curve for lean knowledge. The other is the learning curve for how the organization works. If you hire from outside, you may get someone well up the lean learning curve, but who struggles with how things get done in your company. There is no right answer, but you should ask yourself if your organization is good at assimilating new people and ideas from the outside, how long it takes to earn the respect of peers and whether the outsider can overcome any unique challenges. Answers might help you decide whether it makes more sense to hire lean knowledge or develop an existing leader to become a lean change agent.

Once you have the person, it is, unfortunately, a common mistake to declare the role of the lean champion to “do all things lean.” But by doing this, you avoid the important discussion of the roles and responsibilities of those who are not named lean champion. The lean champion must evolve with the organization. Early in the journey, the champion is the chief salesperson for lean thinking, a coach of lean rules and principles, and the primary architect of the infrastructure and roadmap. As the organization builds momentum, the lean champion takes on many more programmatic aspects of transformation, including training and providing resources for application. As the journey matures, these responsibilities are absorbed by the organization. The lean champion focuses on support and coordination, ensuring that the organization keeps moving in a common direction. The organization and the lean champion must plan points of reflection and adjust the role of the champion. Sometimes, the role changes dramatically enough to require a new champion with different skills.

The worst case is when the organization abdicates responsibility for the journey to the lean champion. The champion may be the architect, but is not solely responsible. If management sends a message that resembles “please report back to me on lean progress” you are dangerously close to abdication. Leadership engagement is a lot harder than leadership support. Assigning a lean champion is easy. Engaging and being coached by the lean champion is much harder, but essential.

Finally, use the role as a development step for the individual, not as a final resting spot on the organizational chart. Rotate people into and out of the lean champion role. Put your high potential people in as change agents, and then bring them back into key assignments to act as leaders and role models of lean thinking. The right amount of time to spend in the lean role depends on the person and the organization, but it is certainly more than a couple of months. Often, this assignment may last 2 to 3 years, with a commitment to make a significant change to the organization during that time.

Get the right leaders in the right roles, and many other problems will be resolved as well.

Jamie Flinchbaugh is a founder and partner of the Lean Learning Center in Novi, MI, and the co-author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean: Lessons from the Road. He shares his successful and varied experiences of lean transformation as a practitioner and leader through companies such as Chrysler and DTE Energy. He also has a wide range of practical experience in industrial operations, including production, maintenance, material control, product development and manufacturing engineering. Jamie is a graduate fellow of the Leaders for Manufacturing Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where his research thesis was on implementing lean manufacturing through factory design. He also holds a B.S. in Engineering from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA, and an M.S. in Engineering from the University of Michigan. To contact Jamie directly, go to the web site www.leanlearningcenter.com.

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