More years ago than I care to admit I became a plant manager at the ripe age of 29 with a mandate to fix a serious safety problem. I worked at it night and day in every way I could and after a few months, had absolutely no improvement to show for my efforts. After an epiphany moment, I decided to eliminate the Safety Director's position – not fire him – just eliminate the position. He was a great guy – very hard working and knowledgeable. I just came to the conclusion that the problem was the position. As long as there was a Safety Director, safety was his responsibility. Once the job was gone, safety clearly became the responsibility of everyone else.
It is largely because of that experience that I have been against the idea of creating jobs with title like 'Lean Coordinator' or 'Director of Continuous Improvement' or the ilk. So long as there is someone responsible for getting the company lean, or making sure things continuously improve, then everyone else is off the hook. They are free to be obstacles in the way of lean and improvement. They can lay back in their own comfort zones, doing things pretty much as they have always done things, and put the giant lean monkey on the continuous improvement person's back to constantly prove that lean is better in the most minute ways. In effect, they can and usually do kill the lean effort.
Lean can only come about when it is inter-woven into the responsibilities of each and every person in the organization. They have to be responsible for the same results they were before, but to do so within a lean framework and in a manner consistent with lean principles. Only then will they be motivated to find ways for lean to fit into the details of their work, and only then will the company really become lean.
This is also why I think the good Mr Akio Toyoda has missed the mark by a mile or more in his solution to Toyota's quality problems. "… the special Committee for Global Quality, will designate a quality officer from each principal geographical region in which the company operates," he says. To do what? To look over the shoulders of tens of thousands of Toyota employees and fix their mistakes?
For my money, Mr Toyoda is demonstrating how poorly he really understands the Toyota Way and the principles that made the company great. Quality – like my old safety battle (which we won, turning the plant into the company leader by a wide margin in short order after I made the change) – is fought and either won or lost at the gemba. Toyota engineers will make millions of tiny calculations and decisions at very detailed levels. The quality of Toyota products will be made or broken in those calculations and decisions. Those engineers will restore Toyota quality – or not – and the input of a regional quality officer will not influence things one iota.
Toyota, ten years ago and more, understood better than anyone that quality is built in and controlled at the source. The only way to assure quality is to make sure the people at the source are knowledgeable and empowered to make it happen.
All the Regional Quality Officers, Lean Coordinators, Continuous Improvement Directors and Safety Managers in the world cannot make a company excellent. Only the people actually working with their noses close to the grindstones can do that.