In Toyota Kata Mike Rother gets into the detail as to exactly who initiates and implements process improvements at Toyota. The answer is that production operators do a lot of the small stuff in their immediate area, but mostly it is team leaders, production management and manufacturing engineers.

Most important is who does not initiate and drive improvements. It is not hot shot experts from headquarters who drop in from the blue; universal experts in everything with black belts and MBA’s. The people making the improvements in processes are the ones working deeply in the processes every day.

The young wizards running Burger King didn’t read Toyota Kata, it seems. They deploy a small army of some 145 “field coaches” who “were supposed to have one to three years of fast-food or retail experience, though some were hired straight from business school”. These folks who don’t need to know the first thing about cooking hamburgers to get the job are will “guide Burger King franchisees on everything from cost-cutting tricks to cooking techniques.”

Not too surprising, two thirds of the Burger King franchisees are not impressed.

The whole Burger King approach is similar to that of the big companies that send their whiz kids out to their suppliers armed with Six Sigma black belts and advanced education to ‘help’. The smart suppliers lock the door and don’t let them cross the threshold. Unfortunately they are also deployed from big company corporate headquarters to the plants scattered across the landscape wherever non-union labor can be found with the same mission – to parlay their higher education into process improvements even though they know little or nothing about the processes they are sent to improve. Those plant managers don’t have the option of barring them from entering the property.

The disruption experts from headquarters – yours or your customers – cause when they show up to straighten out production is widely known and complained about in plants everywhere.

Knowing the methodology for improving the process is not enough. To improve the process in any long term, meaningful way you have to know the process. To be sure, the kaizen expert or black belt can go out and pluck a bit of low hanging fruit, but the chances of improving the process at its core without deep knowledge of the core are slim and none – and the chances of doing harm are very, very high.

Smaller companies have to avoid falling into the same trap. Just because your smart people don’t have black belts or MBA’s, and just because they all work together in the same building doesn’t mean they are qualified to drive process improvements on the factory floor. The people who work in those processes every day have to do that if you are going to succeed.

This gets right at the role of lean coordinators and process improvement specialists. They have to teach process improvement to the people working in the processes – not lead the efforts themselves. Otherwise they might just as well go to work for Burger King where they can make a lot more money and accomplish just as little in the long run.