Selecting Your Team Captain

Friday, April 11, 2014
Shawn Casemore

In hockey, each team has a captain. This team leader participates and helps players remain focused on the team’s objectives while ensuring morale remains high despite obstacles that arise. Rarely does a team have two captains; one is sufficient.

If we look at this closer, the average size of a hockey team fluctuates between 17 and 23 players. This means that approximately 4 percent of the players (or in this case, one player) supports the team in the role of “champion.” 

It has long been recognized that to sustain lean requires the engagement of “champions,” those with the beliefs, personality and knowledge to keep employees focused on lean objectives while improving morale and achieving momentum. Finding powerful champions is the most significant challenge that many of my clients face. I offer this pragmatic approach to identifying and incorporating lean champions.

If we apply the multiple above to any team involved in lean, be it 5S, value stream mapping (VSM) or otherwise, we can assess how many champions are required, officially or unofficially, to support the team and ensure success. For example, a kaizen team of 12 people should have one person who acts as the champion.

Let’s begin by defining the key attributes of a lean champion.

  • A lean champion is not a manager or supervisor.
  • He or she is not necessarily well liked by others, but is highly respected and considered genuine.
  • The champion understands the fundamental aspects of lean and can explain them clearly and convey meaning.
  • The individual is able to connect the value achieved by lean with individual employee wants and needs.
  • This person is confident in the face of obstacles and dispute, focusing on collaboration for better outcomes.
  • He or she is confident and decisive in communications, continuously touting the benefits of lean.
  • The lean champion seeks to use data to support decision-making.

This list is not exhaustive, but it provides insight into the characteristics of promising “lean champions.”

With champions identified, the next crucial step is organizing roles. In applying the 4 percent multiple described earlier, you may need multiple champions, particularly if you are initiating a significant or robust program to institutionalize lean. In this instance, rank candidates based on how they measure up to the criteria listed above, positioning the strongest as “team champions” and the balance as “assistant champions.” For instance, if you were to introduce multiple lean initiatives and tools across an organization with 250 employees, you would require 10 team champions to be placed strategically within these initiatives.

The logical next question is, “What does a champion do?” This can vary based on the desired objectives, but here are some examples of the roles a champion might take:

  • Participate on lean teams, acting as a liaison between employees, management and a facilitator.
  • Lead smaller lean initiatives (where sufficient training exists).
  • Identify and welcome participants to newly formed lean teams or initiatives.
  • Communicate progress on lean initiatives or similar projects back to employees.
  • Identify critical areas for the introduction or further integration of lean tools.
  • Capture, measure and report on progress in various lean programs or projects.

The list is virtually endless, but keeping the attributes of a lean champion in mind, it’s important to use the champions based on their strengths. Similar to a team captain, the lean champion is the conduit between employees and company leadership, supporting the team in tough times and helping it celebrate even the smallest win.

Consider how many lean champions you have across your organization or participating in lean initiatives. If the number is less than 4 percent, or worse, you have only “management” participating in such initiatives, chances are your momentum and outcomes will diminish quickly within the first few months.

Shawn Casemore is the president and founder of Casemore and Company, Incorporated, a management consultancy helping organizations globally to improve organizational performance and build financial strength. Learn more at or follow Casemore on Twitter @ShawnCasemore.