How to Build an Effective Lean Steering Committee

by Jamie Flinchbaugh

I get a lot of questions. Many are too specific to a company’s situation to share, but last week one came in that can be useful to many organizations: What makes a lean steering committee successful?

It is a good question with more than one answer. It depends on (a) the company environment and culture, because committees such as this work in some environments but not all, and (b) the maturity of the lean journey at your company. Over time, responsibilities that were part of the guiding coalition become the responsibilities of line management. Understand these things about your organization to decide the most effective strategy for you.

Several elements make a lean steering committee work:

Composition

The decision about whom to include makes a huge difference. The composition should not be static. I have met many organizations where the group has remained the same for years, and they get more aligned to one another and widen the gap between themselves and everyone else.

There are three primary reasons to include someone on a team:

  • Their leadership role makes their input critical.
  • They have a special skill (such as organizational development) that contributes in a specific way.
  • You want to further engage and interest the individual.

Keep the team small enough that you can put together meetings quickly, make decisions, and get work done. Five people should be plenty for a small organization. For a large organization, you may need up to 10. Beyond that, you become ineffective.

Scope

Most organizations don’t 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. Define a charter that sends a clear signal that line leadership owns lean. The team is only guiding it. Pay attention to infrastructure, education, and communication.

These questions may frame your conversation:

  • Who needs what skills, and what’s the best way for us to develop 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? (communication)
  • How do we share successes so people learn? (communication)

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

Reflection

Someone needs to stop to occasionally reflect on progress. What’s working? What’s not? What do we need to change? The more quickly you’re progressing in the journey, 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 off course. This is a unique responsibility of the steering committee.

Continued Learning

The steering committee is often comprised of people who have learned more than others in the organization. The learning should not stop with them. Otherwise, those who are leading are not in front. Steering committee members need to engage in continued learning for themselves so that they continue to be in front—putting tension in the organization.

Jamie Flinchbaugh is an entrepreneur, senior executive, consultant, and board member with 30 years of learning-oriented experience. He helps companies build culture, capability, leadership, and their overall operating system. Flinchbaugh spoke at the Supply Summit in Myrtle Beach last year. Find him at jflinch.com.