Searching for Superman – why CI/Lean initiatives often fail (Part 2)

Failure is not an option… but most of the time it is assured

One common set of factors that can affect success or failure for a Continuous Improvement/Lean Initiative is the recruitment, selection process, and use of a CI/Lean leader. Leadership at all levels has an impact on every initiative but this becomes more critical during a cultural change initiative like CI/Lean. Selecting the wrong CI/Lean leader can set the organization up for failure. Worse yet, a poor start can actually make it harder for the next time when it is even more important for success.

From Part 1, its not hard to imagine the scene in HR when the company decides to move forward with its CI/Lean Program. This is how I imagine it looks like:

“Lois, get in here and bring your stenography pad”

“Yes Chief, what’s up?”

Chomping on his unlit cigar “Lois, the big office has ordered us to find a Lean Leader. Get on the internet and find out what that is. Get back to me before close of business. The BIG Kahuna himself is hot on this one so we have to execute quickly”

“Alright Chief, I’ll get on it right away”. She leaves his office and jumps on a search engine to find out what a Lean Leader is supposed to look like. The good news is that there are only 6,700,000 pages about lean leadership. The bad news is, there are none of them which really tell you what an individual company needs in the way of lean leader competencies.

Lois found out that there were CI Leaders, Lean Leaders, Lean Six Sigma Leaders, Black Belts, Green Belts, no belts, Mentors, Coaches, Master Black Belts, TPS Trained, Lean Change experts and on and on. There were more competencies listed than for any other position she had ever encountered.

In the end, she went back to the Chief and said “Chief, we need Superlean-man”.

“Great Lois, get him on the phone right away. What’s it gonna cost us?”

“Its not that bad Chief, 250 a year”

“Holy smokes Lois, we can’t afford that much. Hey listen, what about that kid in the mailroom, Jimmy something or other…”

“Jimmy Wholesome? Why Chief, he doesn’t have any of the super-competencies of Superlean- man.”

“No Lois, but he has been hanging out with him so he probably knows just as much. Plus, if he fails, we won’t take the blame… get him up here this afternoon.”


Based on the research I have been doing, the poor HR community has been using a number of cobbled together job descriptions. There are some that look like they may have had some input from an engineering manager or existing lean guy. But most are so broad and far reaching, it is no surprise that CI/Lean leaders are passed over in exchange for a candidate that looks better on paper. Here are some of the CI/Lean Leaders that actually show up.

Flat Leanly

Flat Leanly is normally a recent college graduate with an engineering or technical degree. (His cousin Stanley was the basis for a popular children’s story back in the sixties). Flat Leanly doesn’t have a great range of actual experience but he looks like everyone’s mental model of a bright young engineer.

His enthusiastic appearance hides his lack of any actual experience and he travels well. You can find Flat Leanly all over the factory or office. The workplaces are organized and clean and all of the bosses are initially pleased with Flat Leanly’s influence. As time progresses though, Flat Leanly starts to show the scars from being moved all over the shop. No longer fresh and vital, Flat Leanly ends up being shuffled off to more and more obscure locations and finally discarded all together.

Don’t cry for Flat Leanly. Every year, new ones are produced by the schools of the country. There are never any shortages of replacements for Flat Leanly. Doesn’t it seem funny though that almost every lean leader job description requires some kind of coaching and mentoring experience. Yet the required years experience in over 80 percent of the job advertisements I have read is 1-3 years. Really? 1-3 years???

Attila the Implementer

Attila the Implementer will leave a lasting effect on the business whether they are successful or not. Attila believes that culture change comes at the business end of an audit. Shove them through and they will change regardless of their personal needs or preferences. Mass training events that measure success by the number of butts in seats. Chart after Chart showing progress regardless if there is any linkage to the Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s).

Other leaders run from or stop taking meetings with Attila forcing him (or her) to start sending emails to their sponsors asking for help. Attila only lasts a few quarters. No one misses him/her when they are gone.

The Green Intern

The Green Intern was a High Potential internal engineering candidate and ended up being selected as a cost avoidance measure (not having to hire a new “Expert” not only gives the Chief Engineer resource he can trust, but allows him to hire a new engineer as a replacement). Traditionally trained in Frederick Taylor’s Scientific management theories, the Green Intern and his mentors agree to give this “Lean stuff” a try as long as it doesn’t upset the status quo.

The Green Intern is well managed by his mentors and while the plant does look a little sharper, no revolutions will occur on their watch. After punching their ticket, they plan on continuing their rise in the company so no real waves will be created.

Plant managers like the Green Intern. The really bad ones see an opportunity to deflect personal responsibility for the lean initiative since:

a. They supported lean by appointing this go getter. They can say their plan was to succeed by this person’s success.

b. They can set arbitrary KPIs and the CI/Lean leader has no choice but to try and meet them

c. Failure to meet the KPI’s allow the plant manager to remain free from blame since the CI/Leader works directly for HR, Engineering, Continuous Improvement sections. Their department heads need to fix “their” problems.


Superlean-man seems on the outside to be the perfect choice. This person has a mastery of every single tool and theory in the CI/Lean box. They are everywhere and create the best projects they are directly associated with. They speak with authority, influence with ease, impress the leadership and save everyone. The problem with this candidate is that they are so good on their own, they never feel the need to develop anyone else. Its easier to simply do everything by themselves. In time, everyone lets them.

Then one day, someone finds a box of kryptonite and Superlean-man fails. As he lays on the boardroom floor slowly wilting away, no one thinks seriously about closing the kryptonite box. Chances are, they never heard of kryptonite. He was so busy, he neglected to tell them about it.

Captain Ameri-lean

Probably the best choice for a chance at success. Brings a strong balance of knowledge, skills, and experience. Coaching and mentoring have been gained through many years of experience. Team builder and great team member. Training and facilitation skills. Cultural awareness is a high point but it has been bought and paid for with a lot of mixed experiences.

This person has a fair amount of failures in addition to a fair amount of successes. They may not have a traditional engineering degree but they have a broad range of experience with engineers. Leadership is a critical factor in everything they do.

I think the point is clear. Who you choose for your CI/Lean Leader is one of your most critical decisions as you decide to enter or continue on a CI/Lean Journey.

Here are some things to consider:

1. Get rid of any preconceived notions about what they should look like. Youth and unbounded energy may be great if you are putting together a touch football game. But there may be a better case for experience and developed skills if you want to successfully implement and influence change.

2. What are your real needs and motivations for implementing a CI/Lean initiative? Make sure there is a careful review of the current and anticipated competencies. Match those against the master plan and prioritize.

3. Considering the importance of the cultural change to success, make sure the CI/Lean leader is placed in the proper place within your organization. The members of the organization will treat the CI/Lean leader exactly the same as the leadership does: If they report to the assistant training manager attached to the HR department, everyone in the organization will measure their importance by that position. If they are speaking with the plant or business manager daily, that too sends a message.

I am continuing my work on competency mapping for an ideal CI/Lean leader. I would welcome comments on this article and your thoughts on what you have seen in this role.


Mister Mac (Lean)

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