3 Strategies for #Lean Leaders Who Have No One to Lead


Mark's note: Today's post is by a new guest blogger, Paul Serafino. This initial post will be followed by a series of three posts with strategies that he tees up in this post.

Part 1

By Paul Serafino:

The door to the production floor opens, and the sounds and smells of manufacturing hit you. It's unmistakable. There's just something about creating and building and making things that you can recognize no matter what industry you're in, what kind of factory you have, or who the people are.

That last part is what makes things really interesting: the people. Who they are, how many of them, what they do and what they say, are all the elements that change a manufacturing plant into a real company; a place run by an organization made up of departments and teams, leaders and followers.

The landscape is marked by machines and materials, and the environment is controlled with processes and policies. But the work gets done by the people.

And in that mix of roles with responsibilities carrying out daily activities, navigating the blurred lines drawn around who is supposed to do what, when they should do it (and how), lives a lone wolf. A leader without a team. A manager without a department. An agent of change without an agency.

This person is known by many different names across many different companies, but is tasked with one recognizable, unmistakable, universal challenge: to “implement Lean.”

The form and function of this person's role is disguised in creative ways by Human Resources to define the scope as one that commands attention and deserves high praise. Yet the structure surrounding this individual's unique set of skills leaves much to be desired.

If you're reading this article, this person is probably you.

Here are just a few examples of how you're described on job boards or inside HR files (and what they don't say that's actually true):

  • Continuous Improvement Program Manager – hired to make the continuous improvement program wildly successful (but no such program exists for you to manage).
  • Lean Coordinator – brought on board to implement Lean processes (but no baseline of Lean activities actually takes place for you to coordinate).
  • Process Engineer promoted to Lean Manufacturing Leader – tasked with driving Lean metrics into the manufacturing process (but you haven't been assigned a team or given a position of authority from which to lead).
  • Lean Facilitator – in charge of improving safety, quality, and delivery (but you have to beg, borrow, and steal to fill a room with enough people just to facilitate the most basic training).

These generic tags and taglines are common across all industries. They state a purpose opposed by so many forces, it's almost like a mean trick giving someone the job. This stems from an epidemic that continues to plague organizations: an ever-increasing push for Lean and Continuous Improvement “programs” to give customers the perception that value delivery is top priority. Yet the activities required to make the right improvements are rarely (if ever) prioritized.

During your time in one of these roles you've likely experienced conversations like this:

You as Lean Manager: “The high WIP between steps is a result how we schedule production. I believe we can lower those levels with some simple triggers downstream that start or stop the flow.”

Operations VP: “That sounds great. But we're already pulling. I don't ship anything until trucks are scheduled. Plus, I need the WIP so no one runs dry. I can't have people standing around.”

You as Continuous Improvement Engineer: “In our value stream map, we identified verbal communication as the current state method of controlling production. The team came up with some great ideas to standardize the info and use visual controls to make it easy to spot breakdowns.”

President: “Don't bother with visuals and magnetic boards. We're implementing ERP in a couple months and that will take care of it. Focus on identifying correct staffing levels. That's our real problem.”

You as Lean Facilitator: “I've noticed the way we solve problems is to band-aid them and move on. The data I've collected shows that about half the delays on the line are due to the same 4 recurring issues. We could really benefit from Problem Solving training and root cause prevention techniques.”

Plant Manager: “We don't have time or resources to do training. Just come up with some solutions yourself and send out an email detailing your plans. The Supervisors can share it with their people.”

These are frustrating conversations taking place every day. The struggle to shift peer behaviors toward proactive improvement is difficult enough. But when the ruling authorities take the wind right out of the sails of change, it's crippling to anyone attempting to improve a process (or company) from the inside.

The worst case scenario for those champions of change goes like this:

VP: “You've been a great addition to the company, and we recognize all the improvement ideas you've come up with. They are important, and we know we need to do more Lean. But it was a slow year and we need to cut back on project work. Unfortunately we're eliminating your position effective today.”

This is real. It happens.

I know.

But I've learned. I've learned the methods to overcome the risk of valiant continuous improvement efforts being pushed aside so that crisis mode and firefighting can occupy center stage. I've learned the techniques that provide an effective substitute for having no team to lead or department to manage, but having the responsibility to improve everything.

I've grouped together my favorite (and most effective) courses of action into 3 strategies anyone can use to get positive results and become an influential contributor to successful change.

Over the next few weeks I will publish three short articles detailing the Point, the Process, and the Payoff for each strategy. The week in between is enough time for you to put it into practice and begin to see a return on your efforts.

I invite you to try this. If nothing else, I promise you'll find new abilities of your own that will prove highly beneficial to your career. Best case, you'll see the biggest obstacles to carrying out your duties start to fade, and the path to improvement success become more visible than ever.

Good luck!

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Paul Serafino
Paul's mission is to provide Lean and Continuous Improvement change agents with the tools they need to influence up and accelerate real change in the absence of the right support structure. Paul has held positions in the high-tech arena, the old-school manufacturing space, and the Lean training and consulting world. He taps into these experiences to share what works, what's possible, and how to make it happen in very simple, highly effective ways. He writes and coaches with the goal of helping creative thinkers find the best path to launching their improvement ideas into action. You can learn more at his blog “Accelerated Journey."


  1. Each scenario with the President, the VP, and the Plant Manager is the result of the same issue. You have not established the control over them that is necessary as a coach. They are treating you as an elite fire fighter and directing you to solve a perceived problem (or not worry about one they already think is solved). You will never have the conversation you need to have from this position, no matter what actions you take. Step 1: Establish control. Then and only then are you able to lead them where they need to be.

    • Jim, to some extent I agree there’s a need to “manage up” and help those with leadership titles see the light, as they very often are raised in traditional command-and-control environments. Two issues with this I’ve encountered: 1) it takes most of your time and can burn you out because they hold that ace up their sleeve that always trumps: rank; and 2) no one else around you gets better. As the 3 strategies I recommend are posted you’ll see my goal is to create results despite upper management’s shortcomings. They’ll be left with a choice between letting improvements happen (and possibly jumping on the bandwagon), or intentionally undoing the results. If they choose the latter, of course it demoralizes everyone and hurts progress. But at least you didn’t waste your time (and breath) trying to “control” them, and instead developed skills and confidence in those around you. For the internally employed change agent, pressing hard for control might lead directly to the door hitting you on the way out.

  2. I will elaborate on my “WTF?”

    Jim, what do you mean by “establish control?”

    It seems like outdated thinking… and not very Lean… to think about “controlling” another person, as a manager or a consultant.

  3. LOL Mark. Nothing to do with Lean. Everything to do with being a change expert, the topic of my courses.

    Paul, if Lean has any chance to take hold in an organization, it HAS to be led by those leading the company. Until you as the change agent, are in the position of directing/influencing their actions, everything that gets done in the name of Lean is precarious at best.

    I’ve practiced and witnessed others practicing each of the tactics you’re outlining, only to watch the wins crumble. Much pain led to learning and ultimately a reproduceable method that effects root cause. All else is just symptom control.

    I’m biased of course. But I think it’s high time we start getting real results quickly. Peter Thiel told Bloomberg this week that Tech was the only real American business that’s working. Uh, beg to differ there Pete. This ain’t Granpa Womack’s Lean anymore. US companies are about to eat the world.

    • Jim, it’s no secret that change must be driven from the top when “change” means a new direction or new ways to be successful on the current path. These decisions fall on Owners and CEOs – it’s their company. If a CEO reads an article about Lean and says “Hey this might be the strategy I need to ‘change’ my business, but I don’t have years to fix culture, I have 180 days to stay alive!” then absolutely the principles can be accelerated into practice to generate fast results. I firmly believe a full transformation of the business PROCESS can happen in weeks, with the right coach and right approach.

      Will the results sustain long term? That depends on too many things specific to that business and its people to answer here.

      The environment I’m addressing is the one I most commonly encounter (especially in small to medium manufacturers) where the CEO/Owner has read that same article and says “oh, my customers will love this stuff! I’m going to hire a Lean Engineer/Manager to put 5 S’s into a Pull system and poka-yoke delivery right to 100%!” (huh?!?) HR does their thing and lands someone with great skills and lots of energy (maybe some Lean credentials). Within months, the company has tried to train any new ideas about “improvement” and “change” right out of that person, and the Owner/CEO is completely disengaged. How can this individual be successful? How can he or she perform well enough to keep the job and also use Lean skills and thinking to create results?

      Helping those individuals is just one of the major challenges the Lean community of coaches and trainers and consultants face. I appreciate your optimism about US companies…”Lean” is not the only solution out there, but it’s a damn good strategy that scales nicely from one person to entire industries.

  4. This was a very informative and insightful read! You give some great tips here. As an employee, you definitely want to leave your mark on the company and do your best as a leader, regardless of who may (or may not) be following. Nice post! Thanks so much for sharing!

    • Morgan, I’m glad you enjoyed it. And you’re exactly right – it’s important to try and lead change/improvement no matter what. Someone has to, and if you’re not “assigned” an audience, those 3 strategies are great ways to create your own (and a captive one, at that). Let me know if you try any of them, and what you find as a result.


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