Finding Success in Lean Starts with Strong Leadership



Transitioning to a Lean enterprise does not happen without careful planning and solid implementation strategies. Success depends on effort. And while it is true that all workers in an organization must contribute to these efforts, the single most important factor in determining the success of your Lean implementation is front-line supervisors.

Understanding the importance of front-line supervisors begins with understanding their role within the facility. Have you ever asked your leaders what supervision entails and how they go about it? Answers typically are vague and convoluted. Most front-line supervisors tend to focus on daily challenges, fighting fires rather than tackling larger strategic issues. And this is the problem – many supervisors are unaware of their job role and how to effectively supervise.

What Role Does the Supervisor Play in an Organization?
Fundamentally, a supervisor is an overseer whose main responsibility is to ensure their workers safely produce high-quality products on time and on budget. This means that the supervisor must observe and direct the execution of process-based tasks and, most importantly, solve any problems that arise during production. They must:

  • Work with employees to solve daily problems
  • Plan short-range action steps to carry out goals
  • Delegate projects and assign jobs to workers
  • Train, lead and motivate workers
  • Evaluate and manage employee/department performance through appraisals

Supervisors should view their jobs as coaching others to do things efficiently, following documented Standard Operating Procedures. Over time, supervisors who are constantly observing and directing the execution of a task will become active coaches rather than passively filling a supervisory role. 

How Lean are Your Supervisors?
Front-line supervisors are the key to implementing improvement practices consistently and completely throughout the organization. They are the gatekeepers of the company’s business activities. With this significant weight on their shoulders, supervisors can make or break any strategic business initiative in your facility – including Lean. 

The front-line leadership staff sets the culture of the company expectations. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard a worker say, “I understand why we’re doing 5S, but it’s really hard to be enthusiastic about it when my supervisor is saying it’s a waste of time and to forget about it because it will soon go away.”

The success of any Lean initiative begins – and ends – with supervisors. They must transform theoretical ideas of Lean methods and strategies into action items to be executed by specified workers at specified times, while inspiring workers to commit to a new Lean culture. In order to drive a successful Lean implementation, supervisors must learn to:

  • Spend less time handling current activities and more time problem solving. As previously mentioned, problem solving is essential in a supervisory position. It is the responsibility of the supervisor, and supervisor alone, to notice and tackle problems as they arise – otherwise, they will never be solved. At its core, Lean is dependent on continuous improvement and problem solving. To maintain a Lean environment, supervisors need to learn how to implement different solutions to predict and prevent various problems in production. Execution of improvement efforts ultimately becomes the supervisor’s responsibility.
  • Link Lean activities to business performance. This will not only inspire workers to be more engaged with Lean initiatives, but will help supervisors realize their role involves more than simply policing or supervising.
  • Observe and measure process performance. Work with team members to gain insight into the process’s behavior. Have them take conscious observations and measurables of the outputs, then compare the real outcomes with the desired future state of that process. With this in place, supervisors can then begin to problem solve using Lean principles to close this gap in performance. 
  • Continue measuring performance. Sustaining a Lean culture can only occur when this problem-solving process becomes a subconscious habitual activity. The purpose is to identify, correct and eliminate recurring problems. Real improvements are achieved by implementing permanent corrective actions based on analysis of the problem and its origin.
  • Follow-up. Are the implemented changes producing the desired future state outcome?  If the process outcomes are not yet at the desired future state, continue to analyze the problem.

Without the support of Lean-thinking supervisors, Lean will fail. But with aspects such as productivity, profitability and competitiveness at stake, most organizations cannot afford to fail. To ensure your Lean initiatives end in success, start by looking at your front-line supervisors.


Tomlinson_R.jpgRoger Tomlinson, Lean Program Manager 
Roger has been a Program Manager at The Center for 18 years. He has trained and mentored hundreds of Michigan manufacturers in the entire portfolio of Lean strategies and methods (e.g., Kaizen events, Standardized Work, 5S/Workplace Organization, Value Stream Mapping, Total Productive Maintenance, Culture Change, Team Building, Operations Management and Process Re-Engineering). In addition to his training and consulting work, Roger has more than 20 years of experience in manufacturing management.

Since 1991, the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center has assisted Michigan’s small and medium-sized businesses to successfully compete and grow. Through personalized services designed to meet the needs of clients, we develop more effective business leaders, drive product and process innovation, promote company-wide operational excellence and foster creative strategies for business growth and greater profitability. Find us at

Categories: Lean Principles