Successful Lean Steering Committees [from the archives]

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 09-30-20

Do you have a group of people leading lean? Whether formal or informal, there is often such as group particularly early in the lean journey (meaning the first several years). I get a lot of questions by email, some by clients and others by readers. Many are two specific to the situation to share, but last week one came in that fundamentally was this question:

What have you seen to be successful in regards to Lean Steering Committees?

I believe many would benefit from the response, so I’ll share it here:

That is a good question. It’s one where there isn’t only one answer. I think it depends on both (a) the company environment and culture, as committees such as this work in some environments and not in others, and (b) the state of maturity of the lean journey, as overtime responsibilities that were at one time part of the guiding coalition become the responsibility of line management. So these are the questions you have to ask yourself before beginning to make decisions about the most effective strategy for you.

As far as what makes a Lean Steering Committee work, I believe there are several elements.


1. Composition

Who you decide to include, and who not to, makes a huge difference. I don’t think the composition should be static; it should change over time. I have met many organizations where the group has remained the same for 2 years or more, and all that happens is they get more aligned to each other and increase the gap between themselves and everyone else.
Why include someone on the team? There are three primary reasons to include someone on the team:

  1. Their leadership role requires that their input is critical.
  2. They have a special skill (such as organizational development) that contributes in a specific way to the goal.
  3. You want to further engage and interest the individual through greater involvement in the journey.

Don’t make the team too big. Keep it small enough that actually putting meetings together is feasible and that you can make decisions and get work done. 5 people should be plenty for a smaller organization. For a larger organization, up to 10 may be necessary but beyond that you will really become ineffective.

2. Scope

Most organizations don’t really define the scope or charter of the team. If you don’t, then the team will “own” the lean journey. That is not their job and lean will fail if that goes on for too long. Define the charter in a way the sends a very clear signal that line leadership still owns lean. The team is only “guiding” or “steering.” You should be paying attention to issues such as infrastructure, education, and communication. Here might be some guiding questions that could frame some of your meeting time.

  • Who needs what skills and what’s the best way for us to be developing them? (education)
  • Do we have the right resources engaged? (infrastructure)
  • Do we have systems in place that enable people to engage in improvement (infrastructure)
  • What questions are on people’s minds that need to be answered? (communication)
  • How do we share successes so that people learn? (communication)

Application, unless it’s about getting started or learning-while-doing, should not be the domain of the committee. Application – doing the work – is everyone’s job. If the lean committee owns application, it is easy for them to always own application, which will lead to failure.

3. Reflection

Someone needs to be stopping to do some occasional reflection on how things are going. What’s working? What’s not? What do we need to change? The faster your journey is happening, the more frequently you need to reflect. If you are in a jet plane going 500 MPH and never check your bearings, you can end up very far off course. This is one of the unique responsibilities of the steering committee.
Most organizations only decide to reflect when things are so far off course that you can’t ignore it any longer. By then it is too late. Reflection should be planned and regular.

4. Continued Learning

The steering committee is often filled with individuals who have learned more than the rest of the organization. However, the learning shouldn’t stop there. Otherwise, those who are doing the leading aren’t out in front. Those on the steering committee need to be engaged in continued learning for themselves so that they continue to be out in front putting tension in the organization.
If you’re on such a committee and want to continue learning, I encourage you to sign up for free in the email subscription on the right side of the page.