Lean Leaders are Servant Leaders

Lean Leaders are Servant Leaders

I want to share an experience I had with a manufacturing manager in a company that I was coaching.   He was preparing to begin the process of terminating one of his employees for making too many mistakes.  Not only was his productivity below expectations, but he was also passing too many defects.  I understand the need to hold employees accountable for their shortcomings, but I was curious about the root cause.  So I asked to be taken to this persons work station to watch.

Upon auditing the operation, I noticed that the operator had a standard work sheet present, but he was skipping a work station.  When I asked why, he told me that it doesn’t work very well.  He also said that it’s too slow and he’s found a faster way.  I timed him and he was barely under the cycle time that was on the standard work sheet.  I also observed him walk away from the line with a part in his hand.   When I asked him why, he told me that he had found a defect and he couldn’t find a designated scrap rack.

After that, I found the line leader and asked if there were any auditing procedures for the line.  She told me that they do have layered process audits.  I examined them and it was quite extensive (overly extensive actually), but I did notice that it included auditing for standard work and 5S.  More questions uncovered the admission that the audits were not really done, they were actually  “pencil whipped”.

So now that more of the story has been uncovered, the manager and I had a new discussion.  I asked him if he really wanted to stand by the decision for disciplining someone for not doing the right thing and he said assured me that it was time to hold people accountable.  I agreed and began explaining to him that he needed to start by holding himself accountable, because he was responsible for the problem.

Hearing this did not make the manager very happy, but I asked him to think about the whole picture and who is responsible for what.  Yes, the operator is responsible for following the standard work, but the line leader was responsible for auditing the line.    And who is responsible for making sure the line leader was doing her job properly?  He knew the answer.

Many times, an operator will develop “work arounds” when the process is not well designed.  For instance, after more investigation, we found that the process that the operator was bypassing was indeed not working well and the equipment cycle time had deteriorated to a point that it would not allow the operator to achieve the target process cycle time.  This is an opportunity to utilize the creativity of the employee to solve the problem with management.  If the two don’t work together, it’s very possible that the employee will inadvertently do something that can cause more problems.  We also learned that due to some changes made to the line by management, there was no longer room for the  scrap rack.

We agreed that the right thing to do was to get back to basics and make sure everyone on the line and in leadership understood the importance of Standard Work and 5S.  We also developed an auditing process that ensured that the two systems did not deteriorate.  We agreed that management had to take serious action whenever a process did not allow the operator to succeed in following the standard work.


Everyone knows that many companies take a stab at implementing Lean on their shop floor, but end up empty handed and wondering why it didn’t work.  It’s also not uncommon in these companies for a manager to want to blame the production workers for the problems on the floor.  The truth is, the top management is where Lean starts.  Only companies that embrace the concept of Servant Leadership will have any success in their Lean journey.  Ego’s must be driven out of the management and they must learn that they need to be the first ones to be held to exceptional standards, not the operators.

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  1. Chad Johnson
    January 31, 2015 20:15 Reply

    Great case-study. The importance of gaining a thorough understanding of the situation (not simply helping the manager do what he/she wanted to do). Not always the easy route, but most definitely a vital piece in offering professional and effective consultation.

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