Lean and the Peter Principle
September 7, 2022 | 4:03 pm CDT

Brad Cairns is the senior principal at The Center for Lean Learning as well as running a woodworking business called Best Damn Doors in St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada, where he puts lean thinking into action every day. You can reach Brad at 519-494-2883 or brad@quantumlean.ca.

The lesson we’re about to discuss is one I really could have used 30 years ago when I got started in manufacturing.

As a business grows, you need people. Sooner or later you will need people to supervise the people, and depending on how big you get, you might need of people to manage those people, and so on and so forth until you have a long list of job titles like: team member, team leader, group leader, supervisor, manager, COO. I think this list could be endless, but I’m sure you get the idea.  

Just as important as leading those people, is picking the ones to lead. We will use cabinetmakers for this example, but it applies to any department, organization, or business. 

LeanLeading-cartoon
Leading in a lean organization is not the same as in non-lean operations.


Promoting from within
Most of us like to promote from within. Someone who’s been with the organization a long time, understands the products, understands the process, and can answer just about any question anyone might have. That particular individual seems like a good fit to be the team leader. So, what do we do? We put them in charge!

Now let’s say they’re doing a satisfactory job. The company keeps growing, and soon you have CNC departments, assembly departments, finishing departments, engineering departments, etc. Each one of those departments has a team leader, but it’s a lot to manage so you decide it’s time for a group leader in charge of all of your team leaders. Again, you need someone who knows the business inside and out and your cabinetmaker-turned-team-leader, who’s been with you for years now, seems to fit the bill. After all, he’s doing quite well in his new role. So, once again. We put them in charge! 

It feels great to promote people from within, reward them for their hard work and doing such a good job, it just seems like the right thing to do. But is it? 

The Peter Principle
Let’s keep going. Several years goes by. The company continues to grow, and now we need a general manager to oversee all the operations. Guess who we picked for that job? You got it, your awesome cabinetmaker! 

Now during his ascent up the ladder there were grumblings along the way, but we chalk that up to people just complaining about their boss, after all the tradeoff of having such a knowledgeable person in charge helps you to sleep at night.

Have you ever heard of something called the “Peter Principle“? Here is the Wikipedia definition: 

The Peter Principle is a concept in management developed by Laurence J. Peter, which observes that people in a hierarchy tend to rise to “a level of respective incompetence”: employees are promoted based on their success in previous jobs until they reach a level at which they are no longer competent, as skills in one job do not necessarily translate to another.”

We take someone really good at something and keep moving them up the ladder until they’re no good anymore, then they never get promoted again; no one likes to be demoted, so there they are. Stuck. And this explains how so many bosses are perceived as idiots. They are just one rung on the ladder too high. 

Finding lean leaders
How do you build people to lead your lean organization? It’s simple, you don’t. You cannot train a lean leader, you have to find them. If I had a nickel for every person I promoted that eventually ended up telling me I didn’t train them, I’d be rich. A lean leader seeks information, runs face first into a problem and their first reaction is to read a book on the solution. They are humble, never satisfied and constantly surprising you. If I had to do it all over again, the #1 quality I would look for would be: someone who is always learning because they want to.

Please don’t confuse this with you cannot nurture a lean leader, mentor them, send them to learn from other organizations. You absolutely should do all those things. But you will be wasting your time if they weren’t born with the lean leader foundation in their soul. They are a special and rare breed, but they are out there; it just takes some intentional digging to find them. 

Here are some tips for a basic structure as your organization grows. 

For every 5-10 team members, they should have a team leader. For every 5-10 team leaders, there should be a group leader. For every 5-10 group leaders there should be a manager.

Think of your team members as the surgeons. The ones actually doing the value-added work. Ideally, they should have all their work come to them. They should be able to just call for help at their station, and help arrives via the team leader. Team members should be empowered to make on-the-spot improvements, but if it’s something that is technical or might affect other people, that should be brought to the team leader for approval and consensus. 

A team leader’s role is to support all the activities of the team members. Answer questions, remove barriers, coordinate the work. A team leader maintains flow and keeps everyone at their stations. The team leader should also be assisting team members on improvements. They also would be working closely with group leaders on larger process improvements. They should be teaching and coaching the team members, looking for future team leaders. 

A group leader’s role is setting targets with management and developing plans to achieve them. Delegating specific tasks to achieve those goals, monitoring team leaders’ performance and making course corrections as necessary. 

Group leaders should also be removing the barriers preventing team leaders from hitting set targets. A large part of a group leader’s role is training, coaching and mentoring the team leaders in all aspects of lean and general manufacturing principles. Their goal should be to develop future group leaders. 

Next time you’re about to promote someone, make sure they have the character qualities your looking for, not just the technical skill. 

A great cabinetmaker might end up being a terrible leader. Remember the Peter Principle, and you will be well on your way.  

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

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About the author
Brad Cairns | President/Owner/C-Level

Brad Cairns is the senior principal at The Center for Lean Learning/ Quantum Lean and is dedicated to improving the woodworking industry in North America using lean methods. He also owns Best Damn Doors, a cabinet door manufacturing business in St. Thomas, Ontario. You can reach Brad at 519-494-2883 or brad@quantumlean.ca.