Lean Manufacturing

The Engine, the Oil and the Fuel

By Jon Miller Updated on May 24th, 2017

A lean facilitator from France asked a question about how lean transformations should be driven. This person’s company started lean in 2007 by having a sensei within top management. The background is:

I was named lean facilitator (no official authority), my mission was just to be “the oil in the engine”… but it’s very difficult to maintain because of a poor discipline of the middle management. I’ve never be really the “oil” but i had to be the “engine” to make lean initiatives survive.

The sensei took another position in the company and our lean facilitator friend has now been offered a position of authority over middle managers to ensure that the lean transformation is driven properly. Our friend wants to know:

My question is what position in the factory must I have to keep it right?

The short answer to the first question is “a position of influence” but not necessarily one of power. Influence often comes more from character, ability and reputation than merely position or power based on fear and control, as is typical in most organizations. Ideally the person who is responsible for keeping the lean transformation on track reports directly to the CEO or equivalent highest position in the organization. This keeps the lean transformation on the highest level agenda while enabling front line issues to be raised to the top when needed, without filtering by middle management. Practically speaking, for most large companies the lean facilitator will not report to the CEO but to the highest person at the site or division at which the day to day lean implementation is taking place.

Can a lean transformation continue if there is no facilitator man who is in charge full time?

Probably not until the organization reaches a certain level of maturity so that maintenance and improvement of lean becomes self sustaining. Based on the fact that this lean transformation has only been in progress for 3 years and middle management discipline is still poor, a few more years of focused learning and behavior change is necessary. This requires a sensei, most likely both internal and external. It is not always necessary to have a full-time person, but it’s hard to be half a person, or focused on two things at once, so in all but the smallest operations at least one full-time lean facilitator ends up being required.

Can I drive lean seriously if I take authority over production?

This gets back to the question of whether a lean facilitator who is also responsible for production can truly focus on leading the change effort, or whether the day-to-day production management responsibilities will take priority. This depends on the level of stability of the operation and the strength the management team. If they can be relied on to handle the day-to-day issues the lean facilitator / production manager can take the role of the coach and driver of change.

Since our friend has introduced the engine metaphor, we need to extend that beyond just oil. For example an engine requires fuel. In fact the lean transformation engine requires an infinite amount of fuel. This is not because it leaks or is inefficient, it is because the lean journey is endless. Where does this fuel come from? It is the ideas and energy of people. A full time lean facilitator is certainly necessary, but more as a spark plug than as a fuel source. A one-person fuel tank is very small, and this lean journey will not get very far. The sensei or lean facilitator must establish systems and programs to engage everyone everyday in continuous improvement through daily management via shift start and shift end meetings, visual controls and visible standards, and ongoing problem solving dialogue.

An engine needs more than fuel and oil, it also needs air. The fuel-air mixture is what ignites and drives the engine. This air is the time to actually learn, practice lean behaviors, and implement improvements. A production manager who is also responsible for driving lean may not have enough “air” to get to the lean for days or even weeks at a time, depending on the condition of the operation. Ideally the management system itself, from annual goal-setting (hoshin planning) to daily management and leader standard work are all designed to mix the fuel and the air effectively, rather than make lean implementation something that is “in addition” to one’s regular job.

Finally there is the question of the oil. The lean facilitator is really not the oil. Although it may not seem like a glamorous role, it is critical as the lack of oil will lock up the engine disastrously. A vehicle can run on fumes or even coast for a while when completely out of fuel. Drain an engine of oil, and it’s best just to stop driving. Who should play the role of the oil in the lean transformation engine? Based on the importance of keeping the various parts of the engine moving smoothly and preventing overheating, we need the best leaders, both formal and informal within an organization, to take up this role.

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  1. Frenchie

    October 7, 2010 - 1:06 am

    Hi Jon
    Thanks for quick answer.
    “Influence” is most important I think, you are right. Maybe it’s possible to take another position but showing the way instead of pushing in.

  2. Matt Wrye

    October 7, 2010 - 7:08 am

    Great post, Jon. I think you nailed it on all accounts. I have seen successful lean transformations led by people in authority positions as well as some led by people in influential positions. It is a matter of getting all the components of the engine working together.

  3. John Santomer

    October 9, 2010 - 12:29 am

    Dear Jon,
    I seem to be in the same predicament as Frenchie. I agree with your analysis but in as much as looking at making the engine work properly and assuring that the “vehicle” or lean transformation “arrive” at its targetted levels – I realized we need to look at this in a more “panoramic view”.
    For the engine and all its components (e.g. engine, oil, gas,etc,) to work properly and assure that the “vehicle” arrive at its proposed “destination”; the “driver-owner” of the vehicle has the greatest influence and will certainly assure the success of a lean transformation in the company. It reminded me of the photo you once featured – an owner of a company scrubbing the assembly floor. This is an image that has the best impact and will leave a mark on anyone. The act itself is an effective influencing example to all his staff. An engine alone can not function continuously and needs the care and intervention of the owner in aspects like change of oil, fuel refill, parts change and other services. The owner oversees these things and therefore has the best influence on any lean transformation. Most of the time the owner himself is challenged by middle management on various ideas to make a point – similarly, an engine breaks down because of an anomalous process that needs to be addressed (digging root causes is an important requisite). It is up to the owner/driver of the vehicle to set an example and see through the purpose of the challenge thereby assuring the success of the lean initiative.

  4. sharma

    October 18, 2010 - 3:10 am

    unless the top management honestly “believes” in lean management, being and oil, engine, fuel, carburetor, exhaust pipe, battery, passenger, driver, wheel, etc. will not work.

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