People with the title of “Continuous Improvement Manager” or similar often find that they have broad responsibilities but without the matching authority. The CI Manager may need to identify improvement projects. They may be responsible for executing those projects. They may be required to track and tabulate improvement results from various resources at the site. When extra hands are needed to fight a fire, the CI Manager is often diverted. And in their spare time, the CI Manager works on building a continuous improvement culture.
The Continuous Improvement Manager does not always have a team or dedicated resources for executing projects. They may not have direct line authority to influence other leaders to adopt continuous improvement behaviors that build culture. In extreme cases, the CI Manager functions as little more than an industrial engineer or project manager, with the added responsibility to attend management meetings and report on progress for continuous improvement at that site.
The question we often hear in these situations is, “How do we manage continuous improvement without authority?” It is not an easy question to answer. We create a management position without traditional authority but retain the traditional goals and expectations. How does one square a circle?
Here are three things to keep in mind.
1. What power you have, share with others. This week’s Gemba Academy podcast featured a keynote speech by Kevin Hancock, a CEO who found his calling in creating an employee-centric company culture. One of his insights is relevant to the question above. In essence, Hancock observes that leaders in traditional cultures try to accumulate power, while leaders in lean cultures distribute power. A CI Manager may not have much traditional power and authority to share. That is OK. Start by listening to the people who have interest in or ideas for improvement, and by empowering them to do good things by the customer, colleagues and shareholders.
2. Solve other people’s problems. The CI Manager position is unique in that their success is tied to helping achieve the goals of other managers. Ideally these goals are all part of a cohesive and aligned strategy, rather than a mixed bag of initiatives and projects. It makes little sense for the CI Manager to be responsible for identifying more improvement projects and adding them to the list developed by these other managers through a strategy deployment process. They will just compete for attention and resources to execute them. If strategy goal deployment is lacking, addressing that could resolve the question of “how to manage without authority” at the root cause level. In either case, lending CI thinking and skills to help other managers will build influence and credibility.
3. Model the behaviors desired from others. Building a continuous improvement culture is about getting everyone to do things a certain way, because they believe in it. Seeing is often believing. The CI Manager who runs meetings on time to an agenda, listens and involves others, admits and reflect on their own mistakes, give support and credit to others in problem solving, will find that their effectiveness and influence grows. As others take note of the “CI way” of doing things, influence grows.
Designed poorly, the CI Manager position allows the site leadership to meet the minimum requirements for “doing CI” while not really engaging personally. Done well, the CI Manager position helps to drive continuous improvement activity at the site while strengthening the culture foundation. This is still a lot to ask of a lone CI Manager. It would help if the senior leaders modeled the desired behavior and gave away some of their power.