Hiring the Right Continuous Improvement Leader – Interview Tips and Tricks

Bringing in the right person for the job is always important. I would say it’s vital to bring in the right continuous improvement manager or facilitator.

There may be a variety of reasons why you are looking for a new CI leader

  • You’re just launching a continuous improvement program and looking for someone to lead the way
  • You’re replacing a resource that left the company or got promoted to a new position
  • You’re looking to add additional firepower to the current CI team

Regardless of why you are trying to hire someone, you need to get the decision right. The CI leaders at your site are the spokespeople and ambassadors for your lean program. The right person creates energy, trust and ownership in your business – the wrong person likely creates the sense that continuous improvement is just a passing fad. Hiring the wrong person may also do long term damage to the viability and brand of the lean program. In this article we’ll detail the characteristics to look for in a good CI leader along with interview tips that may help you find the right person.

Before we talk about how you might interview for continuous improvement leaders, let’s talk about the skills and characteristics of a good CI leader.

  1. You need someone that can teach/train: Being able to educate others on lean tools and techniques is a critical skill for any CI leader. Whether it’s teaching people how to solve problems or about the necessary steps in 5S, training will likely be a part of their domain.
  2. You need someone that can DO: Being a good trainer is important but being able to go out and actually facilitate the change is even more important. A good CI leader should be hands on and ready to lead by example.
  3. You need someone that can coach others: What’s the old adage about teaching a man to fish? A good CI leader needs to be able to develop others and drive accountability through coaching. If the CI person has all the actions from a Kaizen event, there’s a problem there – they need to be able to delegate and get ownership from others.
  4. You need someone that can engage and inspire people: As mentioned before, the CI person is the ambassador for your lean program. The heart and soul of any lean culture is the engagement and empowerment of people. People inspire in different ways so you don’t need someone that screams “I love lean” from the top of their lungs every day but you do need someone that’s passionate about continuous improvement and willing to share that passion with others.
  5. You need someone with knowledge: Depending on the maturity of your lean system and the level at which your hiring, this may vary. But you probably need someone that can at least tell you the difference between Hoshin Kanri and Jidoka.

At this point, you might be asking yourself “How am I supposed to figure all those things out in an interview?” Good question. The answer is that you might not be able to… in a traditional interview. When I say a traditional interview I mean your standard recruiter phone screen followed by a phone interview with the HR person followed by an in person interview with the line manager and possibly some other leadership team members. This process might only give you an understanding of #5 from the above list (you need someone with knowledge) and even that may be iffy. I’ve encountered a lot of so-called lean “experts” with incredible resumes and experience but who couldn’t tell me the difference between cycle time and lead time…

Let me share four pieces of interviewing advice that may help you pinpoint that perfect CI manager/leader candidate:

  1. Ask them to teach you something: Have a flipchart and some markers ready. Give them a list of 3-5 simple lean topics (like 5S, visual management, andons, pull systems). Ask them to pick one of the topics and create a 5-minute teaching session for you. Leave the room and give them 20 minutes to put together 1-2 flipcharts to teach you the topic. Bring in a few people to act as the audience and tell them to ask the candidate some questions on the topic. You can use this observer assessment to capture their thoughts. After the candidate has left, bring the audience members back and ask for their feedback. This is an exercise that gives you a better understanding of:
    a. The facilitation technique, style and skill of the candidate
    b. The ability of the candidate to work under pressure
    c. The ability of the candidate to engage an audience
    d. The subject matter knowledge of the candidate
  2. Give them a task that tests their engagement of people: I was working with a company in Asia that needed to hire a continuous improvement manager. They were down to the final few candidates and they all had very similar resumes and experience levels. They had already brought them in for in person interviews but still couldn’t decide. The “situational” interview I asked them to perform was to send their candidates (individually – not all together at the same time) down to the shopfloor and ask them to collect a specific piece of data from an operator. I wasn’t trying to ascertain the data collection skills of the candidate – I was trying to understand how well they could engage with the front line workers and build trust. After the interviews we asked the operator how the interactions went with each candidate. He gave us feedback like “Well, the first guy didn’t shake my hand or even introduce himself” and “One guy made me feel uncomfortable because he kept rushing me and talking over me” – all valuable insights that you couldn’t get from your traditional interview. The results from the situational interviews helped the local management team make their choice.
  3. Use behavioral interview questions: We’ve all heard these types of questions before – “Give me an example of a time you something something something” or “Describe a time in your career where something something something”. Behavioral interview questions are useful to get an understanding of how the candidate handles certain situations and how they solve problems. Most people prep for the “standard” behavioral interview questions but the ones below are geared specifically for CI leaders:
    ⦁ Give me an example of a problem you solved and the process you used.
    ⦁ Tell me about a time when you were delivering some training and you had to deal with aggressive people in the class.
    ⦁ Tell me about a time you were able to coach someone to a solution.
    ⦁ Give me an example of a time where someone didn’t agree with you on a something and how you were able to change their mind.
    ⦁ Tell me about a time where you had to lead by example. 
  4. Test their knowledge: As I mentioned before, lots of people claim they are lean experts but can’t really back it up. It’s important that your CI leader is seen as a knowledge holder. There are a couple ways you could test their knowledge – give them an actual test or ask them a few during the interview. For the former option I would recommend you check out the Lean Fundamentals quiz here.  You could use the challenge mode which is 25 questions and timed – and ask them to email you the results (option at the end of the quiz). For the latter option I recommend the following questions:
    ⦁ How would you explain lean manufacturing to someone on the factory floor?
    ⦁ Explain to me the difference between lean and six sigma.
    ⦁ What is a pull system and why would I want one?
    ⦁ Explain Hoshin Kanri to me and what I would use it for.

Hopefully the tips above will help you find the best lean leader to fill your role.  If you have any questions or experiences you want to share please post them in the comments section and don’t forget to find us at @leanquizblog at twitter. 


  1. Very helpful article.

    Also in my view,
    Criticle ability for CI leader is,
    1 ) how well CI leader can convince functional Managers or Steering committee members to change ( if any gaps) the way they deal with people, process, problems, this is bit difficult to manage..
    No transformation happens without leadership transformation!
    2) Ability to design long term & short Lean transformation.


  2. Excellent . Thanks for this valuable tips.

    These tips can be converted into exercise and can be added as a part of MCIL program where the plant directors will use these tips for selecting the best CI leader.

    This gives maturity for the existing CI leader for their area of focus on improving their strengths as well and hence this can be added to SCIL program as well.

    Can we add something to check whether the CI leader is driving for the realistic solution according to the current business situation.

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