Developing Team Leaders through Kaizen

Many companies ask some variation of the question. “Why aren’t we seeing bottom line results after the kaizen event improvements?” There is more than one answer, but I recently came across a good illustration of one typical situation.
This manufacturer of transportation equipment has been doing kaizen for a while and the teams show productivity improvement numbers at the end of the week. Yet the CFO doesn’t see the difference, and the factory manager can’t put a finger on how these changes are affecting the numbers he watches. Very simply, they aren’t freeing up people from the area that has been improved.
If a job that took 6 people can now be done with 5 due to kaizen and productivity improvements, you must reallocate that 1 person and do the work with 5. The Standard Work and the operator cycle time balance charts should reflect this. Instead many companies skirt this issue and allow the 6 people to finish the work sooner, pull in some work from next week, do more clean up, or spend time on improvement projects that in theory should yield future gains in productivity.
This is the wrong approach folks. I am absolutely not saying that this 6th person should lose their job. They should be assigned to work under the Lean Manager to help other areas implement Lean, or participate as a kaizen team member. The line that has been kaizen must run with the new staffing and demonstrate productivity improvements.
Ideally the business will grow due to lower costs and quicker lead-times and the person that has been freed up can be rotated back into a production position. In some companies where the gap between the growth in business and the people freed up is great, you sometimes temporarily see a larger group of “nomadic” Lean specialists who form almost a permanent kaizen team going from area to area working on improvement projects.
One deadly mistake some companies make is to select the most junior or the least skilled of the 6 people and free up that person. Although like many things in Lean it may be counterintuitive, you need to free up the most experienced and skilled person and assign them to the “kaizen pool”.
Hopefully this is basic stuff for the Lean Managers, Lean Champions, Kaizen Facilitators, etc. out there. But it seems this lesson hasn稚 fully sunk in yet with the management of companies working towards Lean.
This has the effect of requiring the level of Standard Work to be well defined so that newer workers can follow it as effectively as the more experienced workers. It also gives others to step up and fill the shoes of the person that has been freed up. This creates opportunities for upward mobility that helps motivate Lean implementation and kaizen team activity.
We often have to coach our clients’ management that the best way to increase the abilities of their people and build a strong organization to support Lean is to free up the best people from the team as a result of the productivity improvements that are made. This can be tough advice to swallow, but it is essential for several reasons.
The corollary of this rule is that when you are selecting your Lean champion or full-time Lean manufacturing facilitators, you take the best possible person you can spare. The position they vacate should be a necessary and desirable one. This will avoid the problem of assigning someone to manage or lead the change who everyone knows is ‘underemployed’ in their current position.
The challenge to the employer is that when you lose the best employee on your team this can result in a short-term drop in productivity.
A friend of mine who is a manager at a Seattle area company that does carpentry and home renovation projects for high end houses had a similar challenge. He has an employee who had previously been the production manager of a small window manufacturer. We’ll call him Rick. Rick had experienced Lean manufacturing in his window company, increasing throughput some 30% without adding resources.
My advice to my friend was to have him coach Rick so that he works himself out of a job. Rick should coach and train the younger workers under him so that they can increasingly take on the skilled work and estimations that he does. It may require Rick to take an active part in hiring. In that way he can train his replacement and move up into the supervisory position that would challenge him.
Doing this requires a well though out strategy so that you don’t pull out your most experienced workers without first converting the tribal knowledge into documented procedures, Standard Work, and cross-training charts and other process level Visual Management tools. You also need the absolute understanding and commitment of top management to operate in this way. Kaizen is about more than improving your processes; it is also about improving your people.