The CEO Can’t Champion Everything

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on July 28, 2011 · 16 comments

In my travels from one company to another, I hear many of the following phrases…

“We need executive sponsorship.”

“We need this to be owned top-down.”

“We need the CEO to champion our lean efforts.”

These are phrases that I hear over and over as I talk to companies about their lean journeys. I also spend a lot of my time either coaching CEOs and other executives on their involvement in lean, or working with others on strategies to get those executives engaged in the lean journey.

Certainly, your lean journey will be more successful if and when your CEO becomes a champion for it. But this is true for anything that must change in your organization. If you’re implementing SAP, it would be more effective if the CEO is championing it. If you’re launching a new S&OP process, it would be great to have the CEO engaged.

Can your CEO be the champion of everything that’s important? Of course not.

Here are some questions to ask yourself before putting all your eggs in the “we need the CEO” basket.

1. Is the person visible enough?

In one company the COO had been the champion, and the CEO supportive. Transferring ownership of lean to the CEO was explored. But the CEO was, and needed to continue, spending most of their time outside the organization. They were working with a reorganized board, working with the banks to maintain the right financing, and because the industry demanded it, spend a lot of time supporting the sales process in person. The COO was the true tone-setter in the organization, and the best person to be the true champion of lean.

2. Who has the best vision?

Sometimes the CEO is still not up the learning curve enough to be leading lean. To lead something, with conviction, you need to be ahead of the organization on the topic. You don’t have to be ahead of everyone, but you need to be well ahead of the median. You want the most senior champions to have enough knowledge of lean to have a vision – one that they can sell.

3. Who can move the next steps of the roadmap along?

You should have a roadmap. And all roadmaps for lean transformation are different (or at least they should be); they respect the culture, business needs, infrastructure and so on. What if the roadmap is to do a surgical-strike focused implementation in the finance organization (or insert another group here)? The CFO is a great senior champion, not just for their department but for the whole organization. They can be the voice of connections from finance to other areas.

It’s easy to say we need the CEO. Sure, that would be nice. But don’t let this be an excuse. You have many battles to engage in while leading change in the organization. Learn where to push, where to give, and what will help you move along the furthest, the fastest.

What do you think? Has your organization had success with someone other than the CEO championing lean? What factors have you considered in this analysis?

1 Anthony Durante July 29, 2011 at 8:41 am

This is an insightful post. When I first read the title, I was like “Is he crazy?!?” But after reading it, it makes a lot of sense. Sometime the CEO is not the best person to champion the program. I do think that he needs to show outward clear support for the initiative, otherwise it undermines whomever is leading it. Our company has struggled with Lean because the “lean guy” was the only one really cheering on the effort. The rest of the executive and senior management staff were less supportive and skeptical of the initiative.

In a manufacturing environment, I think it almost has to be the COO or GM who champions the effort because they are usually the ones pushing production goals, etc. If they champion the initiative, it avoids creating conflicting goals between production and Lean projects.

Great post Jamie!

2 Jamie Flinchbaugh July 29, 2011 at 8:51 am

Thanks for the note Anthony.

One follow-on note your point: the “lean guy” shouldn’t be the champion. It’s just too obvious to be effective for very long. Of course the guy with lean in his title is championing lean. This is expected. It doesn’t add credibility or weight. The “lean guy” is the coach, teacher, steward, strategist, and many other things. But the organization itself must OWN and be accountable for lean. This is one of our pitfalls we discuss in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean.

3 Mark Welch July 29, 2011 at 9:05 am

Jamie – how far down the chain do you think championing of a lean initiative can go – generally – and still be successful? Why? Love to hear more thoughts on this…

4 Jamie Flinchbaugh July 29, 2011 at 9:08 am

Mark, not to dodge the question, but I think that’s different in every organization. It depends on the culture of the organization. It depends on how hierarchal the culture is, how respect is based on individuals or based on roles, and how visibility and communication occurs from top to bottom.

5 Mark Welch July 29, 2011 at 9:12 am

I’ll go out on a limb here. My thinking is generally – GENERALLY, NOT ABSOLUTELY – no lower than 1 level below CEO, for the reasons you mentioned…

6 Anthony Durante July 29, 2011 at 9:26 am

Mark… I think it can go lower than that. Jamie is absolutely right in saying that it depends upon the structure and culture of the organization, but I think a Lean champion can be found at a lower level than the CEO or COO. In the end it has to be someone with some influence and authority who can be the voice of opposition to the CEO or whomever.

7 Mark Welch July 29, 2011 at 9:37 am

I think so, too, Anthony, but the ice gets thinner the further out you go, wouldn’t you say? Unless you’ve got a truly exceptional person with strong influence, communication skills, and visibility, it gets much more difficult.

8 Joseph Dager July 29, 2011 at 10:07 am

Thanks for the post, Jamie. I think though a CEO has to be committed to the transformation and will probably has some tough decisions to make as a result, he is not required to be the champion. He is required though to empower the champion.

I like you note that the organization is the one who owns Lean. I think that is the key concept that many of us miss. If it fails, the CEO typically gets the blame and rightfully so. But understanding Lean (Kaizen) as an individual is only one person’s responsibility. If we look at it from that viewpoint the concepts of Kaizen become much more clear. By that I mean, being responsible for yourself and to empower others in your line of sight.

9 Crystal Cotton July 29, 2011 at 10:48 am

I am new to the Lean world. I have read some of the original work “Lean Thinking” so I know just enough to be as dangerous as a butter knife. But. Is Lean and Kaizen really the same thing? I think of Kaizen as a tool used to make process improvements and Lean as the approach that aligns the process improvements with corporate objectives. I am on our corporate lean steering team and we have been tasked by the President to “get this lean thing moving” but I feel as though we need to know “why” we are doing lean. If we are doing lean to improve efficiency and optimize resource, why are we doing that . . . to work on something new . . . to solve a know weakness in our product offering . . . better support the customer (why what is the problem?). Only the President/CEO can give that direction. Otherwise we are just being more efficient for the sake of being more efficient and eventually will just create more muda with our free time.
Please help the newbie understand. . .

10 Mark R Hamel July 29, 2011 at 5:39 pm

Hi Jamie,

Very nice post. I think you’re right.

While the most executive leader should not and cannot abdicate their responsibility, it does not mean that they can and should be THE champion in every situation.

Often folks bemoan the fact that their senior leaders are not effectively leading the lean transformation. Their assessment is usually right, more or less. But, the “moaners” also use this situation as an excuse to not serve as competent and engaged lean leaders themselves. That’s not the right thing to do!

11 Tom Buccigrossi July 30, 2011 at 12:08 am

Oh so agreed! I work for a 4 Billion+ company with no COO and various new large initiatives. Our CEO is embracing these initiatives down to the Marketing Level. Our expansion since 2008 has been over 50% per year – now totaling over 2000 employees and 20% revenue growth each year. Those of us that have been with the company for 10+ years are watching our beloved CEO completely “fry-out”…not good. Lean is good… anorexic? Not so much. We dedicated managers are doing what we can, but are “frying-out” ourselves. A COO is more crucial than most think.

12 kopstar July 31, 2011 at 11:30 am

Thanks for the post, some interesting thoughts. I personally think it depends on how close senior leaders are to the wider population. Those that are close at the start of a transformation must be seen to champion the changes otherwise the message is business as usual. If however the CEO is not as close to the wider population for example he leads a global business then it is not so important.

An example of mine concerns a major global organisation with many geographical locations. A new site director strongly championed a site level transformation to great success but when he was promoted and became more distant his replacement took more of a back seat. The result was a stall in the transformation as the general site population expected the site director to play an active part. As his replacement didn’t then it was perceived as no longer important.

In summary I don’t think the title or organisational level is important just as long as the leadership population who are visible in their direction must be champions.

13 Mark Graban July 31, 2011 at 5:44 pm

CEO involvement is critical, but the lack thereof becomes an easy excuse for people to not try to improve.

I’ve seen cases, with lean, where the CEO didn’t even know lean was happening when it started in the middle of the hospital organization. But you know what, people tried and they made improvements and they tried to change the culture locally where they had control (until it bumped up against the overall culture).

As that area showed results, the CEO got more and more engaged.

I’ve heard too many people suggest it’s pointless if the CEO isn’t on board from day 1. Cases like that (especially in healthcare – John Toussaint, Gary Kaplan) are few and far between.

So maybe my main message is to not sit back passively waiting for the CEO to get on board. Get to work.

14 Mark Graban July 31, 2011 at 5:46 pm

As a side point on CEO engagement in healthcare… “hospital CEO” is equivalent to a plant manager at a large manufacturing facility (like Toyota Georgetown) or a VP of Operations at a manufacturing company in terms of the number of employees who work for them (1,200 to 10,000).

Not all deserve to be called a “CEO,” frankly.

There’s a lot of job title inflation in healthcare!

15 Liz Guthridge July 31, 2011 at 10:43 pm

Super post and questions, Jamie! So many project leads want CEO involvement for any change initiative, including lean. Yet, strong CEO involvement won’t guarantee success, but weak or bad support will derail the initiative. So play to everyone’s strengths.

16 Kevin Kobett September 22, 2012 at 9:27 pm

I agree top management should be involved in the lean transformation.

However, I think another group is just as important, company personnel who have, on their own, made improvements to the process. When companies start kaizen, they assume no one in the company has made an improvement. This assumption, in my experience, is not true.

The first step in a lean journey is to ask everyone, “What improvements have you already made?” Unless you have just a few employees, some employees have been making improvements.

Identifying these employees have many benefits. One is you have examples of what you desire. Post past improvements for everyone to see. “This is what we want.”

Another benefit is the company objectively identifies a network of conscientious employees. When top management wants to do a walk around, they know who to stop and talk to.

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