Line versus Staff Leadership

Over at the website Joel Stanwood Managing Partner of American Industrial asks the following question about building a Kaizen Promotion Office:


What practical advice would you offer to companies as they establish their Kaizen Promotion Offices?  At the beginning their Lean journey each company faces questions such as:

(a)    What is the role of the KPO to serve the organization?

(b)   How do we best leverage the KPO for leadership development?

(c)    What is optimal size of the KPO organization?

(d)   What is right mix of internal / external hires?

(e)   Who should the KPO lead report to?

(f)     How is the KPO best organized in order to sustain Lean both inside/outside of the plant?  (i.e. sales, distribution, marketing, product development in addition to manufacturing)”


The question of how to staff a KPO (Kaizen Promotion Office) and with what type of leader is an interesting one and it deserves some thought. I don’t think the question is a trivial one or a “one size fits all” answer. The response depends upon the nature of the company, the situation it faces, resource development priorities, and the overall leadership style of the executive leading the organization.

For starters let’s question whether you even need a Kaizen Promotion Office to begin with.  That may sound like an odd question but keep in mind that Toyota did not have any sort of Kaizen Promotion Office during the formative years of their system. From 1950 through roughly 1970 while the system was being built up internally Toyota did not employ any such office or structure. Development and expansion of the production system was controlled by people in direct line management positions such as Taiichi Ohno and some of his key followers.

It was not until around 1969 that Toyota established what they called the seisan chosa-bu (生産調査部 ) group (Operations Management Division) in Japan to function as a dedicated group of individuals in a staff role to support the development of the Toyota Production System (TPS). This group was staffed by very few individuals in the early days and all were handpicked internal members such as Kikuo Suzumura, and the more famous member Fujio Cho.  And in reality along with codifying what was already being done with the production system this group focused as a crack squad to aid on a few special items of internal nature. As time went on they also played a major role in helping implement TPS principles in the supply base. So if Toyota did not need anything like a Kaizen Promotion Office for two decades do you?

The answer in most cases is yes for a variety of reasons. In most cases the typical organization simply does not have a Taiichi Ohno sitting around in terms of TPS knowledge or leadership ability.  So this missing piece is “outsources” to either an internal staff person, outside consultants, or a combination of the two. However I do want to stress that the goal should not be to build up strength in any type of staff group like a Kaizen Promotion Office. The goals need to focus on getting results in the organization and developing the capabilities of line leadership. This non trivial detail often gets overlook in many lean efforts.

Having gotten my warning points out of the way now what type of person do you want to lead your Kaizen Promotion Office? The answer depends upon the organization, the situation, and what type of leader you are in the first place. For example early Kaizen Promotion Offices in North America were often fairly simple groups that organized Kaizen workshops frequently using external resources. This method had some amazing success stories in some instances and some rather spectacular failures in other companies. Eventually most Kaizen Promotion Offices evolved to some higher level of internal facilitation of kaizen activities along with managing external resources. As time went on these internal groups also began to focus less on event driven “kaizen workshops” and more on development of an internal system or way of doing things to support companywide improvements.

So in the end the question ultimately depends upon where you are in your journey towards lean and how you lead as an individual. If you are strong and very hands on manager like Taiicho Ohno with an exact vision of what needs to be done you can actually have a very small Kaizen Promotion Office. This office and type of leader would help direct your vision and support accordingly. If however very traditional leadership is in place then a stronger lean leader in the Kaizen Promotion Office is needed to help explain what the system is and to accomplish breakthrough events. These breakthrough events can often help individuals have an “ah ha” type of moment and realize how to lead this system eventually on their own. Other instances require different leaders who may for example focus more on developing the skills of others…it all depends.

So in response to this question my counter question is what is your current situation? How do you like to lead? What is the state of your organization on its current lean journey? What type of support do you likely require etc.? The answers to these questions and others would dictate what type of person to put in your Kaizen Promotion Office. Regardless however I would always look for someone with actual experience in your field of operations, the ability to work with different people, some ability to train and develop others, and a track record of delivering results.