How to Manage Continuous Improvement without Authority

By Jon Miller Updated on September 16th, 2018

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.

  1. Rick

    September 17, 2018 - 8:09 am

    My mentor John Maxwell notes that “leadership is influence; nothing more and nothing less.” As a “Factory of One,” with an understanding of the “Why” behind positive change, CI Managers have the opportunity to influence others in a pull system that moves the organization towards success. The ability to coach and foster collaboration has become very important for us. That’s why we believe that Leadership development is paramount for successful lean transformations and the ability to keep moving forward. I’ll be sharing similar thoughts in a session at the GBMP next month. Great post!

    • Joseph Pavlosky

      September 18, 2018 - 6:13 pm

      I am living the above dream, and I agree if you coming in with the strategy on how can I help you make your day better instead of and here are your problems and though shall do this, has work well for me to sell Lean. The second part is training the work force as they are indoctrinated to the work place (yellow and white belt) with a follow on of conducting Green Belt courses for leads and floor level managers, Black belt courses for the division and department heads and Champion course for executive level personnel in house. This reforms the culture on not so much on having/holding events, but this is the way we do business both proactively (CI) and re-actively(RCA) in-turn you get more buy in from individual work force because they are able to fix what is in there sphere of control and influence decisions that are out of there influence of control with data driving analysis that allows upper management to make better decisions quicker. Pople at all levels now have ownership and you develop your leaders from within.

  2. Peter Evans

    September 28, 2018 - 2:46 am

    I’m with Rick and his mentor on this… It all starts with “Why”… In fact I would go further and say it ends with “Why” too! I have worked with so many CI leads and practitioners who seem to believe one or both of two things: 1) “It’s all about the tools” or 2) ‘“All we need is to tell them we will help them and they will come”
    Both miss that key ingredient to change – people! Kierkegaard, arguably the father of existentialism said something like “all people come at life from their own perspective”. And, that includes work. They don’t check out their individuality as the enter the work place if anything these days they build it there. So if that’s the case then we must start from a thorough understanding of the people and processes we aspire to help… Covey says “First seek to understand and then be understood”… Taking the time to do that is, in my view, the real key to CI Leadership.

  3. Nimesh

    October 26, 2018 - 4:15 pm

    I am sure lot of CI practitioners can relate to the article. Great post!!

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