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August, 2010

In the past 5 years, I must have interviewed over 100 candidates for various lean positions. For the most part, I have to say that the resumes have not really matched the candidates. I guess what I’m saying that it’s easy to ‘talk the talk’, but not so easy to ‘walk the walk’. Shouldn’t it be easier to screen candidates who have real-world lean experience from those who’ve merely participated in the never-ending rounds of cost-cutting happening in so many companies?

Enter the demand for lean certification, a means of ‘legitimizing’ a fledgling profession. And make no mistake, ‘lean’ is now a profession. Those with lean skills are being actively recruited, for very specific lean positions. Salaries for these lean positions can be

Bill Kluck
The Northwest Lean Networks
north of $USD250 000, and these don’t even represent the top leadership positions. There are lean-specific recruiters, lean-specific consultants, lean-specific education programs, and lean-specific certification programs. Yet, there is no agreement (or real understanding, for that matter) on what lean is, let alone what a lean professional should be doing for an organization. This invites a lot of competition for these spots, in what turns out to be a high-stake gamble for many companies.

Many hiring managers responsible for bringing on lean talent don’t have the foggiest notion of what a lean professional does, and certainly have a difficult time defining the qualities needed to fill the positions. There is some vague notion of improving efficiency (by cutting waste?), and a general sense that cost-cutting will be involved. How can we put together a job description for this? Perhaps we can find one on the internet……

Of course, Human Resources isn’t much help either. They are supposed to be the front-line screeners, those who make sure people are who they say they are. But since the profession is relatively new (yet everyone claims to have 20+ years experience?), our screening processes usually aren’t up to the task. A recognized certification would certainly help level the playing field. Or would it?

As I said earlier, lean certification programs exist. One can become ‘certified’ in as little as 3 days, or it can take up to 18 months to complete the same certification. And there is every level in between. It hardly seems equitable, does it? How can we make sense of this? What does it all mean?

Let’s go back a bit, into recent history. When we ask for a Six Sigma Green Belt, or Black Belt, or Master Black Belt, we know what we’re getting. Most programs, both internal and external, take similar amounts of time to achieve the various certification levels. There are specific project requirements, generally accepted levels of knowledge and competency. The Six Sigma community has been very successful in propagating these standards. And even though we may not recognize the certifying body (some companies have internal Six Sigma certifications), we’re generally comfortable that these professionals meet a minimum standard, and can prove themselves in due course.

But in the lean world, we’re still battling in the trenches. There are no lean standards. There are lean purists (those who believe the Toyota way is the only way), lean fundamentalists (those who define lean as a series of defined steps), and lean idealists (those who focus on principles and custom solutions). Each of these groups differ on how to begin, how to proceed, and how to measure success.

I recently toured a facility which had been ‘leaning’ for about 3 years. The basis for their lean implementation was 5S, and an intricate series of performance boards. Their current push is on problem solving, as a skill and behavior. The ‘lean team’ leads ‘kaizens’, teaches via various simulation games, and performs evaluations and audits on various departmental lean activity. I did see posters that spoke to ‘wastes’, but there was no specific waste identification activity. There weren’t any projects focused on waste, and waste wasn’t quantified. It was explained to me that ‘waste’ was a mindset, not a behavior. And they were looking for a certification program for their particular ‘flavor’ of lean. Both the factory and the offices were immaculate. But they really couldn’t quantify the benefits of lean, in either value or savings. Engagement was high, to be sure. Everyone was involved, and had a clear idea of what to do next. But they didn’t seem to have a sense of where they were going. And it seemed a bit pedantic when they had a team meeting about the growing number of coats on the backs of chairs.

Let’s not get too enamored about certification. Certification implies a ‘minimum’ level of competency. And since that level hasn’t been defined, most certifications are worth a bit less than the paper they’re printed on. However, once we know what is behind the certification, we can better assess the value of the individual to the organization. In my mind, a good certification has to have the following elements:

  1. A multi-level certification scheme, based on individual need and organizational requirements for skill, leadership, and capability building
  2. A defined, team-based learning curriculum
  3. Opportunity for independent study
  4. Substantial requirements for hands-on improvement activity
  5. A requirement to lead improvement activities
  6. A requirement to teach and mentor others
  7. A requirement to keep items 2 through 5 current

A recent GOOGLE search on ‘lean certification’ yielded 2.5 million results. After going through 6 pages of criteria, none of the certification programs even came close to anything like these requirements. These programs cost from $99 to $20 000, and on a resume, they all appear very similar. In fact, unless we’re skilled in which questions to ask and which areas to probe, candidates with these certifications would even ‘sound’ quite similar.

Is this the case for a single certification standard, across the board? Should we be looking for a ‘Six Sigma’-type standard for our lean professionals? Certainly, there would be certain advantages to this approach. It would be much simpler to digest and understand, for one. Another advantage is there could be more parity in pay and promotions, again simplifying the HR impact. But are there advantages to keeping with the ‘wild west’ approach that exists today?

Keep in mind we still don’t agree what it means to be lean yet. For some, it’s about behaviors and mindsets. Follow the rules, and the results will come over time. For others, it’s about getting defined results. Let the ends justify the means, which are different for every company. Some companies don’t want to ‘train’ the entire workforce, just for trainings sake. For some, certification for lean professionals makes sense, for others, they might want to certify the entire workforce. For still others, lean is about either increasing capacity, or cutting costs, period. All of these views are valid, depending on the business, and the economy in which they’re working.

The business case for ‘going lean’ is different in every organization. Just like building a business case for new capital equipment, or deciding to enter a new market, or developing a new product, deciding to pursue a lean strategy shouldn’t be made on a whim. Lean is a long-term commitment, and the organization has to be willing to accept that commitment, in both the near- and long-term. This decision, once made, has ramifications in all areas of the company, starting with getting the right people on board, to ensuring our goals support the strategy chosen.

Whether or not a company decides to hire certified professionals, or if they decide to externally certify members of their current workforce, or if they decide to develop their own certification program, certain factors need to be considered. What does certification mean to the organization? What does certification mean to the individual? What does certification mean for the success of the lean strategy? These questions can only be answered internally, but the questions must be asked. The success of your company depends on it.


no_photo.gifBill Kluck is the Founder and Director of Operations for The Northwest Lean Networks, a professional society which connects the lean community worldwide. Bill has over 20 years of experience implementing lean in a wide variety of industries, both public and private. He has trained thousands of team members in various lean strategies and techniques, and has overseen financial impact in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Much of Bill’s time is spent internationally, building transformational change by evolving business culture.

Bill earned his Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering from the University of Washington, an MBA from Seattle University, and holds several continuous improvement certifications, including a Six Sigma Black Belt, and a Master’s Certification in Lean Methods.

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