Mingo Logo Formerly SensrTrx
Close this search box.

Leaders Must Lead

“Leadership behaviors and culture in the organization are the biggest factors that impact the success of your continuous improvement efforts. – Mike Leigh, President, OpX Solutions

Good leadership in an organization may be the most important factor in determining success. What also plays a part is the people working towards continuous improvement goals and the structure of those teams.

Roles and responsibilities within the organization depend on your goals. If you’re trying to do a big company-wide transformation, the roles and responsibilities are going to differ from the roles and responsibilities of a company trying to start small and incrementally affect change and build confidence in the team.

However, for the sake of this blog, we’re going to focus on:

  • The concept of starting small
  • Building leadership
  • Determining supporting roles and responsibilities with that goal in mind

Building the Leadership Team 

To start, you need to build the first leadership team that will help you start small. Eventually, you’ll expand on this continuous improvement initiative to the entire organization, but remember, you have to start somewhere. Quick wins get everyone’s buy-in, and when that happens, then you can expand.

So, once you have that in mind, you need to start by appointing an executive sponsor who’s going to support the project, and ideally, this starts all the way at the top, meaning at the CEO or COO level. Maybe it’s you. Or maybe it’s someone else in the organization, but this person needs to be selected at the start of the project.

We can’t understate the importance of selecting an executive sponsor for a project (obviously, since we’ve now mentioned it twice in a short time span). Whether it’s a small project determining the cause of downtime on a line or a massive continuous improvement project seeking to change the company into a world-class lean manufacturer, an executive sponsor is crucial.

Basically, this person enables you to quickly accomplish tasks while clearing all of the potential roadblocks. We highly suggest having an executive sponsor to all of our customers because it really just allows them to move quickly and start getting insight into their plants without delay.

Then, compiling the rest of the team depends on what you’re trying to do.

Think about what you’re trying to accomplish. What’s the first obstacle you need to tackle? If you select a process and determine process improvements, who are the group of people that you need to chip away at those improvements to make it happen?

Your leadership team is going to be different based on what goals you’re aiming to achieve.

It’s wise to start from the bottom up. While change needs to be initiated from the top down, that change won’t become sticky unless everyone in your company is on board, and this starts with your frontline workers. You guessed it, you always need operator input and buy-in.

This is the “concept of bottom-up management and employee empowerment,” according to The Toyota Way author, Jeffrey K. Liker.

You need your operators because they’re the ones closest to the process, can tell you what’s going on, and help you understand. They’re also the ones that will embed these new goals into their day-to-day activities, creating a waterfall effect throughout the company.

Then, you need their supervisor or manager on the team. There may even be others throughout the organization that you need on the team, again based on your goals and projects because it is completely situational. Think maintenance or engineering people.

Then, depending on the level of your maturity, you need someone to help you do this whether that’s an outside consultant or internal continuous improvement coach. If your goals involve software and industry 4.0 initiatives, you may even need someone in the role of “steward”, as John Broadbent, Founder of Realise Potential, names the role.

Steward (n): This is someone who “bridges the gap between all of the different systems. This person or team of people makes sure data has been collected accurately and correctly, contextualizes it, and does something with it. Basically, they make sense of the data and turns it into actionable insights for the company to act upon.”

Or, maybe it’s simply just a manager. The point we’re trying to make, is you need someone to fill the role of coach or guide, beyond the role of the executive sponsor.

This is all dependent on the structure of your organization and comfort level at accomplishing these tasks.

Everybody Needs to be On-Board (And Leadership Needs to Guide)

So, you’ve got the structure of your team. Now what?

You have to put together the team that has the knowledge to make it work and have the capabilities to solve the problems. But, at the end of the day, to make the whole thing work throughout the organization, you need everybody. You need everybody to understand what this process is and how it can benefit, you guessed it, everyone. Everybody needs to practice and do it in their everyday lives.

Frankly, you want to grow these goals and initiatives beyond a single project, get everyone learning this process, and turn yourself into a learning, continuously improving organization.

Throughout this lean manufacturing resource guide, we’ve continually mentioned Toyota Kata by Mike Rother. In this book, Rother explains the “Coaching Kata”, Toyota’s methodology for leaders as teachers.

“At Toyota, the goal is not necessarily to develop the very best solution today, but to develop the capability of the people in the organization to solve problems,” Rother says.

Much of this methodology is focused on a mentor and mentee approach.

“The mentor/mentee approach develops individual responsibility and initiative while also providing common direction and approach,” he explains.

This is what leadership needs to do while working towards accomplishing goals. The start of any lean and continuous improvement plan is putting together a team that will start small and get those quick wins. Then, as that initial team improves, that culture of continuous improvement and learning grows and expands to the rest of the organization.

It All Starts at the Top

The catch to all of this is that it depends on the leadership team’s commitment level. If the CEO of the company is committed to this, they want to make it happen, and they make sure it happens, it will happen. But, if they lose focus or decide it’s not important, then the whole thing falls apart.

Mike Leigh describes, “a strong leader or a good leader is very good at rallying the group, the team and getting them all focused and working toward a common vision or goal and executing.

The leader’s responsibility is to lead, set the agenda, and make sure they’re heading in that direction.

There’s “no such thing as a hands-off leader at Toyota,” Liker says.


Roles and Responsibilities of Continuous Improvement Teams

The Toyota Way explains the roles and responsibilities structure of world-class manufacturer, Toyota. This structure is how they ensure the success of their goals. While this is simply a blueprint, it should serve as a framework as to how you should structure your own company, especially when working towards new goals and continuous improvement projects. (The below graph is a paraphrased version of Liker’s explanation of roles and responsibilities.)

Team MemberPerforms daily work and tasks, problem solves and continuously improves, most familiar with the actual work and actual problems that affect the machines and lines
Team LeaderEnsures production goals are met, trains employees, facilitates small group activities, supports the team, keeps the line running smoothly and producing quality parts
Group LeaderMaintains production planning, conducts administrative tasks, leads and coordinates multiple groups throughout the plant, integral to a majority of process improvements

As we said, Toyota’s framework should simply serve as a guide when determining how to set up your own team and the responsibilities each member of that team should have.

Jesse DePriest, a Lean Transformation Coach, Certified Process Optimizer, and Director of Operational Excellence at First National Bank of Omaha, defines structure in the organization as levels, rather than particular roles. This is especially important as each person involved in a particular level can differ based on what you’re trying to accomplish as we mentioned above. It’s all situational. Jesse’s roles and responsibilities follow a tiered structure:

  • Micro – Operators are the key group at this level. They’re the ones interacting with the machines and lines on a daily basis. Operators and supervisors are communicating about the day’s progress and determining if goals are being met. If not, this micro team of people come up with solutions for hitting goals in future shifts.
  • Macro – This, as expected, is the middle tier focusing on supervisors and plant managers. They’re discussing the trajectory of the company on a weekly or monthly basis, expanding on the goals of the micro tier.
  • Mega – The final tier is high-level, often with plant managers and the C-suite. This could even be considered a company-wide level of structure so everyone understands what’s happening with on-going goals and projects.

If you want to do create a learning organization that is focused on continuously improving, the whole company needs to be involved. Of course, you can start small and reap the benefits of quick wins but eventually, you’re going to need to expand to the rest of the company to see any real change, including with good habits and behaviors that help contribute to success. You have to start somewhere, then teach the people, and then spread this way of thinking to the rest of the company. But, don’t forget, there needs to be a plan, and most importantly, someone needs to be in charge of it.

Don’t Do These Things 

We’ll give you a hint – there are a few things you absolutely shouldn’t do when trying to enact lean manufacturing and continuous improvement in your plant.

For one, you should not bring in an outside consultant where there is little to no support from the top. No, we aren’t suggesting you not bring in an outside consultant. In fact, we highly recommend an outside resource because it can be very helpful if you’re just starting out or simply just stuck in a rut. But, we are pointing out that if you are going to spend the time and money to do this, this person absolutely needs support from the top to accomplish their goals.

The same applies to an internal continuous improvement person. Don’t provide them with no budget and no authority to fix anything. If you want to see real change, give them the resources and tools to fix problems and create change. This is what you want, right? So enable this person.

Leadership and Culture are the Key to Success

While the decision to do all of this has to come from the top, it has to grow from the bottom up as we mentioned before. You have to get operators on board with these processes. The people who do the work every day have to understand “What’s in it for me?” and want to contribute to the larger goals, otherwise it’s never going to work.

“It brings meaning,” Jesse says, “Employees know why this is important and what we’re trying to do.”

Your goal as a leader is to meet goals and lead the company to success, but this is only going to happen if your company believes in your mission. Employees need to feel appreciated and engaged. They need to be rewarded and acknowledged.

Jesse adds, “It doesn’t matter how much lean training you get. If the culture doesn’t exist and don’t have the right leadership skills, you won’t have sustained success.”

Always keep this in mind.

And, to conclude this leadership guide, we leave you with a Toyota Way principle. “Grow leaders who thoroughly understand the work, live the philosophy, and teach it to others,” Liker explains.

Picture of Bryan Sapot
Bryan Sapot
Bryan Sapot is a lifelong entrepreneur, speaker, CEO, and founder of Mingo. With more than 24 years of experience in manufacturing technology, Bryan is known for his deep manufacturing industry insights. Throughout his career, he’s built products and started companies that leveraged technology to solve problems to make the lives of manufacturers easier. Follow Bryan on LinkedIn here.