Designing the Job of the Chief Engineer

December 1, 2017 • ILE LAB • Boaz Tamir

Designing the Job of the Chief Engineer – A student Journal

The more familiar I became with Lean Product and Process Development (LPPD) formula, the greater my appreciation for the role of the Chief Engineer at Toyota. Jim Morgan’s fundamental book “The Toyota Product Development System,” made me aware of this position. After meeting with Masato Katsumata Chief Engineer Toyota Mid-Size Vehicle, I believe that the Chief Engineer system serves as the beating heart and the key to understanding LPPD.

When John Shook, who heads the Lean Global Network (LGN), offered me the position of Chief Engineer for Process Development and Work Standards Setting in Lean New Global Architecture (LNGA), I immediately understood that I had been offered an outstanding privilege and opportunity to fulfill two goals: to be a partner in Meta design, the process of leading and activating the LGN according to LPPD methods, and to study in depth the role of the Chief Engineer, who coordinate and conducts the professional knowledge resources in the development process. A place of honest and robust dialogue about what works and what doesn’t.

After the initial thrill of joy, I was flooded with questions and doubts. I look at the 23 heads of the national Lean institutes that Jim Womack and Dan Jones (the founders of the global Lean movement) had brought together in order to “Make things better through Lean thinking and practice.” How can we design a common work language (communication protocol which will serve as the basis for the LNGA) for this eclectic, multi-national and multicultural group, with its mix of local interests, without falling into the trap of the “Tower of Babel”?

And anyway, I thought, how is it possible to lead any process under conditions of complete dependence upon the knowledge of the professional units (or LGN institutes in my case)?  How do the Chief Engineers at Toyota, Boeing, or Ford even dare to take strategic responsibility for product development and define the future model of value creation for the entire organization, when they are walking in the nude, lacking any formal or hierarchical authority?  How do we deal with resistance (which will be almost automatic) to change? How is Lean Thinking principles supposed to help me to reach the purpose that has been vested in me?

The more I looked at the LGN loose network, which lacks borders and structure, and actually isn’t even a commercial organization, the more my doubts grew:  How can we create join activity and make business decisions – strategic and tactic, who will define the organizational model, the roles and responsibilities for process management?  How will I cope with the battles over turf, control and influence among the heads of the national institutes that await the Chief Engineer?

It is impossible to lead external change without self-reflection:  Will I be able to develop a new personal and managerial perspective? Will I be able to free my thinking from 44 years of managerial and executive activity in hierarchical organizations that operate according to the principles of mass production?  As Chief Engineer, will I free myself from theoretical, academic discussions and create an effective and sustainable organizational system?

I have decided to approach my new role at LGN first and foremost as a curious learner. Yet asked myself will I manage to maintain a humble, observational, non-judgmental perspective and allow myself to be a student rather than a self-appointed expert?

I began by defining underlying assumptions, on the basis of which I will design the system.  They are:

  1. Freedom to take initiative, to try (and fail), to accept and to question discussion.
  2. Humble Inquiry – solving problems through empirical trial and investigation, that is, Learning by Doing.

The vision I have set for myself: to create a domain of active trials that will serve as an open space and source for collective dialogue and learning. I will be able to do this only through personal and group experiences by observing the investigations of other activists through Gemba visits – in the LGN institutes, in meetings with active and retired Chief Engineers, Lean Agile-Scrum and Lean-Startup activists Design Thinkers, advisers and coaches.  Sharing insights while maintaining principles of transparency and openness to feedback within the community of Lean activists will serve as a knowledge resource for the entire community.

We’re on Our Way

The sources of the value stream are somewhere high up there – the purpose and the strategic questions.  Immediately after receiving the charter, I wanted to receive clearer instructions: Where are the limits of responsibility? What is the basis of authority? What resources are available? Who defines the Key Performance Indicators (KPI)?  It turns out that it’s easy to teach theory to others, and difficult to practically do this for yourself.

Why am I waiting for instructions? No one will do the work for me.  Better to pivot and change directions as early as possible.  I decided to send out a scout, to send out the first experiment and propel the summary of my (subjective) understanding of the charter and job definition to the members of the board.

The responses didn’t take long to arrive, and they ranged from requests to join to incisive critique and push-backs: An experienced Chief Engineer asked to come closer, to engage and to get to know how to Front Load the Risks. A visual scheme of the risks (which had begun to appear) – the differences in views, the conflicts of interests, and the internal politics – made it clear to me that I had stepped through the gate and had started my LPPD journey towards the design of a LNGA system.

I am embarking on a difficult journey, which will certainly involve risks and frustrations, but I also hope to find partners who are curious to learn, to be fascinated, and to enjoy ourselves. The next challenge – defining the stepping stones along the path and the method of planning – is already in progress.

Boaz Tamir, ILE.

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