Lean for Leaders

Leading a lean enterprise.

What does it take and why is it important if it is?

Certainly there are executive skills that are important for a successful leader. I spoke to someone today who believed that one of their success secrets was being able to focus on one thing at a time until completion. Kind of hard to argue with that idea until you begin to break it down.

Say my top priority is to solve a cost problem. I drop everything for a meeting with the three department heads and the accounting manager. We develop an action plan. They have daily meetings for status. All of the work to get to the bottom of this issue is in their hands. After the meeting I have a decision. Do I keep working on this problems myself and wait and see what they come put with which would be according to plan. I can certainly spend alot of time worrying about the problem – I can focus on this one issue and use my time to worry, investigate, worry, investigate, and in the process cover alot of ground that my three managers are covering now, and some ground that really doesn’t need to be covered at all.

Or I can go onto my next priority and put this one out of my mind until it comes back tomorrow. And this is where the first important executive skills is required.

Managing multiple priorities simultaneously. An effective leader cannot tell their subordinates – I’m sorry, I’m not going to meet or talk about anything else until I get this top priority problem solved. In most cases – and perhaps there may be exceptions but few – putting everything else on hold hurts the business, stalls important efforts by others, and wastes alot of your own time because you just cannot fill your time effectively with tasks that must be done by you.

Along with this first skill follows the next one. Managing information about your top priorities. You need to be able to take good notes. People laugh at the executive who takes constant notes in meetings in a big book. But this is how a mature executive manages information – by priority – along with action items, who is doing what, etc. There are those who can do this all by memory. Most of the executives I have met who believe they can do this by memory do a very poor job but nobody can tell them that because they pride themselves on remembering everything – big mistake. Ego substitution for effectiveness – “self-made-man” syndrome.

The next skill ties it together. Put everything in a time frame. If you put everything that needs to happen into your calendar as a meeting, a follow-up call, a trip, or something concrete that has to be done by a certain definite time, you will not be able to escape what you must do to be effective. You can write these things on a list but it will not have the power that placing them into your calendar has. And when you say “We’ll check on this tomorrow without stating a time and place, you will find everyone else making excuses for why it didn’t happen.

These are fundamental executive skills. Most people do not have these skills. Even experienced leaders often do not exhibit these skills. It takes a highly disciplined leader to focus on the basics and get them right continuously.

Leading lean takes the same discipline. But first let’s consider why this might be important.

Being competitive in any of today’s markets relies on how fast you can improve. So you’re delivering your product on-time 95% of the time. How fast are you moving toward 100%? Effective lean leadership relies on executives who are highly disciplined and apply the skills listed above to the task of lean leadership.

We list five processes that we believe to be essential for lean leadership.

  • Strategic Planning – setting and managing longer term priorities.
  • Leadership Communication – establishing processes for communicating priorities and status and hearing feedback from the entire organization.
  • Organizational Performance Review – reviewing performance at all levels on a regular basis.
  • Continuous Improvement Management – establishing responsibilities, assigning roles, and reviewing progress on all areas of continuous improvement/lean implementation.
  • Workforce Development – establishing and managing processes for workforce development.

Lean leadership is simply setting up conditions where a predetermined percentage of your time is devoted to sponsoring and leading improvement activities. If your lean leadership is “on-again” and “off-again” then you’ll need to give some thought to how you might establish these five processes so that you cannot escape the responsibility to continuous improve the business.

The Leader’s Guide to Cost of Quality

What is “Cost of Quality”?

The Cost Of Quality “COQ” is the cost associated with delivery a product or service to a customer that is perfect, error free, functions as promised, and anything else the customer considers to be required.

Given the definition, the costs associated with COQ are not just the obvious failure costs such as scrap, rework, warranty, but also the costs of inspection, expediting, managing the process, and many other costs as shown in the Iceberg.


If a process delivered a quality product or service every single time without fail, scrap would be zero, warranties could be infinite because they would cost zero, and there would be no need for inspection, expediting, and managing the process including the many other costs that are less obvious.

Why is COQ important?

If the cost of quality is 30, 40, or even 50% of sales as it is in most companies, then it is important – even though most companies consider all of the things mentioned above as a part of COQ as “business as usual.”

Business as Usual

Most companies stop trying to improve at about 30% COQ. They mostly consider those costs as “business as usual” – “you can’t have perfect processes, you can’t operate without mistakes, you can’t have perfect processes, etc.” – but these typical statements fly in the face of the evidence. Companies are finding ways to avoid that cost and when they do, they become fierce competitors because they can quote prices below what you consider to be the cost of doing business. How will you compete with a company doing what you do that has a COQ of 5%?

Calculating COQ

Want to take a rough cut at your COQ? The traditional way is to just add up the cost of scrap, rework, warranty, inspection, inventory carrying costs (20% per year), expediting, and a healthy portion of supervision and management payroll because they spend most of their days firefighting, and you get a rough COQ.

Another way and possibly more elegant in it’s simplicity is “Rolled Yield.”

Rolled Yield

A term used mostly in the six sigma movement, it’s a metric that takes the yield at every step of the process – the ‘first pass yield’ is what’s intended here – and multiplies it together to get a rolled yield figure. At first this might seem like gibberish but there is a logic whose explanation goes beyond the scope of this post but if you need it send me a reply with your email and I’ll send you a copy of the article – or you can just pick the book “Six Sigma” and read chapter six. Basically this rolled yield accumulates the amount of work that is done and PAID FOR, that does not result in a usable product or service.

So for instance, if you have four steps in your process and the first pass % yields are 80, 90, 90, 95 then you would simply multiply each as follows .80X.90X.90X.95 = .6156 or roughly 61% rolled yield.

Now to apply that to get COQ, simply multiple the total cost of your operations, say it’s $1M per month times 39% (the reciprocal of 61%) and you get a COQ of $390K per month.

Now notice that’s $390K per month that could be going to your bottom line if you had mature processes that did not require “business as usual.”

Changing Your Mind

As leaders, our job is to define what is and isn’t “Business as Usual” and everyone else will follow our lead – that’s why they call us leaders. If we say that all of this cost is Business as Usual then nobody is going to work on reducing it. But if you say as they do in Toyota, all waste is bad and nothing is Business as Usual, then you have set the pace for excellence. You may not know how to achieve zero defects, but it’s clear that you decide whether it needs to be achieved.

In most cases this means you need to change your mind about what you consider business as usual.

Demanding Process Maturity is a way of changing your mind.

Leading Process Improvement

Should process improvement be #1, #2, #3, or lower in priority for small manufacturing suppliers? Machine shops, fabrication, plastics, electronic assembly, circuit boards, etc. Whatever your business, if you’re a small family-owned company you have competing priorities. You may work on the floor part or most of the time, you may try to supervise and manage people who work for you, and some family members – it’s hard to picture yourself working in an office for more than a few minutes with so many competing priorities. And perhaps you never saw the business employing 100, 200, 300 – as the business transitions we are challenged to take on the new role of leader.

This blog will discuss the issues of being a leader. How to transition from worker to leader, what you need to know to set your priorities, how to build the business without losing control (that is if you ever had control).

I want to talk about process improvement, continuous improvement, process maturity, lean systems and implementation, 6S, flow manufacturing, just-in-time, pull systems, and more from a leadership perspective.

You have a wealth of experience so I hope you’ll contribute your comments as well.