Lean Specialists, Lean Generalists and the Benefit of Half-Persons

Things seem to come in threes. Or perhaps we become satisfied and stop counting at three when in fact the particular phenomena we are counting in fact persists. This week three separate organizations asked us on three separate occasions about the appropriate number of Lean specialists in order to have a successful Lean transformation. We’ve wondered before about the pros and cons of having a KPO (kaizen promotion office) and this week made us think about this question further.
The answer these good people were looking for was something like “One Lean specialist per 100 employees” or “Five percent of your FTE labor effort should be dedicated to Lean” or “You need 3 Lean specialists for this 18 month program to succeed.” While none of these answers may be wrong, we have found really no rule of thumb that is useful in guiding companies towards the appropriate number of Lean specialists to have on staff.
This question is somewhat similar to the question of “How many kaizen events should we do in a year?” and reveals a confusion of the ends and the means. Take it from a consultant: never ask a consultant how many kaizens you should have.
The question of how many Lean specialists is a good one however. This question is much easier to answer if organizations are looking at Lean not as part of a long-term cultural shift and a new way of doing business, but rather as a discrete project or series of discrete projects. There are established project management methods for determining the resources needed to launch and manage projects, including Lean.
However, when doing Lean the “right” way, making a learning organization focused on developing leaders, exposing problems, and solving problems, the question of how many Lean specialists will be needed becomes a much tougher one to answer. There is a chasm that needs to be crossed in going from event-driven, specialist-led Lean transformations to Lean as a way of doing things based on total involvement. How much time does it takes to open people’s minds to new approaches to leadership, make it safe to expose problems, and institutionalize a standard way of solving problems? We don’t know, but we think the answer lies in how quickly you can develop a massive number of Lean generalists, as opposed to how many Lean specialists you have.
A Lean generalist is someone whose full-time job is not Lean, but has the education and some practical skill in finding and getting rid of waste as part of their daily work. The Lean generalist can be at any level in any organization. The Lean generalist is far easier to train and certify than a full-blown Lean specialist. The Lean generalist is far less prone to being hired away by another firm, or to evolve into a consultant (not that this is a bad thing, per se). Most Lean generalists will accept as much training and hands-on learning as needed to make practical use of Lean concepts on their “real” job, but be impatient with additional hours of Power Point for the sake of certification.
Lean generalists are by definition not full-time Lean people. Given the choice, it is better to have 5% of everyone’s time dedicated to Lean, rather than 5% of the people as full-timers. Not that five per cent is the correct number, perhaps fifty percent is closer. Most Lean specialists we meet have been given Lean as “the other half” of their responsibility anyway, using their skills to help new product launches, ERP system launches, or other miscellaneous project management or fire-fighting. The benefit of these half-person Lean specialists is that because the Lean is more fun, they will figure out ways to “Lean” the fire fighting, new product launch work, etc. so they can get back to implementing and teaching Lean full time. But back to the main thesis.
Everyone needs a sensei, and there will always be a need for a small group of Lean specialists within an organization. These Lean specialists are not so much mechanics who build and maintain the Lean system from its technical aspects, or instructors who train new people to do so, but more like chief engineers who pull the organization along towards the ideal, challenging fixed ideas of strong-willed leaders, and working cross-functionally to insure that the decisions of leaders are in the best interest of the whole system. These people are exceedingly hard to find. You have to grow them from Lean generalists.
Lean specialists are necessary, in the same way that missionaries and technology innovators are. The natives don’t convert themselves, and new technology isn’t adopted without introduction and promotion. Yet if the missionaries never go away, a sustainable and indigenous version of faith never takes root. Likewise, the more Lean generalists you have, the broader you have done Lean education and the more practical you have made the ways in which people can do kaizen at your company, the better chance you will have of still being on the Lean journey, fifty years from now.

2 Comments

  1. Kenneth Lee

    July 19, 2008 - 4:16 am

    Great post.

  2. Kate Mull

    April 3, 2009 - 9:58 am

    Jon:
    You’ve given me many items to ponder in this article–well done!