Tips for Lean Managers

To KPO or Not to KPO?

By Jon Miller Published on May 13th, 2007

Here is a bit of heresy that has been rolling around my brain lately: having a KPO / Six Sigma Competency Center / Office of Operational Excellence / Continuous Improvement Office hurts rather than helps a Lean effort.
Best case, these Kaizen Promotion Offices can rapidly do the in-depth study that is needed to begin implementing Lean, where it may be impractical to educate everyone and run the business at the same time. These Offices can evangelize other people, collect resources and find external resources for education and implementation, and take on rapid improvement projects. These Offices can also make connections between different parts of the organization that may be pursuing independent or uncoordinated improvement activities.
Worst case, these organizations are points for knowledge transfer by consultants, scheduling of event-driven Lean implementation projects, and excuses so senior managers don’t have to get their hands dirty. The KPO is often charged with getting results as well as doing the hard work of changing people’s minds, which should be the leader’s role through actively learning and teaching TPS.
At worst, by establishing a KPO, Lean becomes just another functional silo and it is “their job” rather than something that is a way of life and part of how people are taught to work.
Management must lead kaizen and Lean transformation by example and by becoming teachers. These managers need coaches to help them do this so when a Kaizen Promotion Office is led by people who can mentor management, it fulfills an important function.
If the company culture, or the business situation values results more than culture, these KPO people will spend their time doing kaizen, rather than teaching people how to do kaizen. As a result, and when Lean implementations do not go well, these Lean departments become training grounds for future consultants, rather than a gateway for training future managers who will stay on the lead ongoing improvement.
Toyota used their OMCD to bring up great leaders like Chairman Fujio Cho. The OMCD was not there not only to advance the Toyota Production System but to train managers, not so managers could shirk the duty of leading change by passing it onto so-called professional Lean implementers.
Toyota spun off TSSC as a non-profit rather than have it serve as the driving force for bringing kaizen culture into their supply chain. I don’t know their reasons, but perhaps it was due to a belief that in the long haul, supplier development should be the job of sourcing and purchasing people after they have been well-heeled in TPS and kaizen, not the work of in-house Lean experts or consultants.
Practically speaking, can large organizations get started with Lean effectively without an KPO? It takes some vision and leadership by demonstration, rather than leadership by funding an KPO, but I believe it can. To recognize the need to have kaizen competency and a way to educate people in Lean principles is good, but to make it a separate project or organization can be a way for managers to shirk the responsibility of personally learning how to do and teach these things.
Danaher, for example, seems to successfully make kaizen, hoshin kanri and all aspects of Lean manufacturing a part of how managers get their job done, in the form of their DBS.
Many of our colleagues are former KPO officers, and we have many points of contact within our clients who do important work in this role. Working in a KPO role can be great fun, since kaizen is your full time job. At the same time, most of the frustration with Lean comes from that level and the lack of management support being one of the most often stated reasons for failure.
The natural state of a mature Lean enterprise is not to have kaizen promotion as a separate function but as part of how all functions are performed. This is a chasm that many organization have yet to cross.
Lingo check:
DBS = Danaher Business System
KPO = Kaizen Promotion Office
LPO = Lean Promotion Office
OMCD = Operations Management Consulting Division
TSSC = Toyota Supplier Support Center

  1. Basavaraj

    September 23, 2007 - 4:52 am

    Very good and great information for future industrial growth

  2. Raghavendra

    August 28, 2010 - 11:00 am

    Completely agree! Lean is seen as extra work, rather than simplifying the existing!!

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