Making Lean Stick – The Reciprocal Relationship

By on June 21, 2012
The Lean Reciprocal Relationship

Any organization that has begun the Lean journey knows that making Lean stick is not easy. Beyond making superficial changes in the work environment, which is relatively easy to do, making Lean really permeate the thinking and modify the second-to-second behaviors of employees, especially managers and supervisors, is a tough process.

Why is this so hard to do? In my opinion, a lot of the difficulty has to do with the sticking power of some beliefs about the nature of work and workers introduced early in the twentieth century by Frederick Taylor, often referred to as the father of scientific management. While Taylor made some positive contributions to management theory and practice, his thinking also did much to dehumanize work. Taylor’s thinking regarding the ability of workers comes across very clearly in this statement he made before a congressional committee, “I can say, without the slightest hesitation, that the science of handling pig-iron is so great that the man who is physically able to handle pig-iron and sufficiently stupid to choose this for his occupation is rarely able to comprehend the science of handling pig-iron.”

It’s very clear what Taylor thought about the ability of line workers to make meaningful contributions to the improvement of work processes. In the event any of you are thinking that this very “old school” thinking has largely faded away, here’s evidence that it’s still alive and well in twenty-first century.

Recently I read an article in a major metropolitan newspaper about workers who had been downsized and who, as a result, had to take lower paying jobs. In this article, a professor of human resources management observed that these workers needed to “adjust their perspectives” regarding their understanding of the importance of their work. She was quoted as saying, “You have to be realistic and understand that you’re not offering special skills to McDonald’s. Your job flipping burgers is not critical to their success.”

Is she kidding? Why do you and I go to McDonald’s? To buy hamburgers. How do we evaluate whether or not we’ve made a good buy? By whether or not the hamburger tastes good. Who plays an absolutely key role in determining whether or not our hamburger tastes good? The person “flipping the burgers.” “Not crucial” to the success of McDonald’s? On the contrary, the people who flip the burgers are at the very heart of the success of McDonald’s. Bad burgers. Unhappy customers. Great burgers. Happy customers and repeat business. It’s that simple.

It may be simple, but it sure isn’t easy to drive out the type of thinking epitomized by Frederick Taylor’s comment about the stupidity of workers. And this type of thinking has to change if Lean is going to stick. There’s a great divide that has to be crossed in making the transition in thinking from “flipping burgers isn’t crucial to McDonald’s success” to Henry Ford’s observation, made early in the twentieth century, that “It’s a reciprocal relationship – the boss is the partner of the worker, the worker is the partner of the boss.”

I’ve had some experiences about things that work in helping organizations cross this divide between “old thought” and Lean thinking. I’ll share some of these in future blogs. I’d also like to hear about your experiences in making this change in thinking happen.

About George Friesen

George Friesen serves as Business Practice Leader - Lean Manufacturing for the Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College. He has led the College's Lean business practice area since 2000. Prior to joining the College, George worked for Maritz Performance Improvement Company. Over the past 35 years, he has served a wide variety of Fortune 500 companies, specializing during the past eleven years in Lean Manufacturing, focusing especially on the 5S System, Lean leadership and thinking processes, Value Stream Mapping, and Lean team building. George is a graduate of Washington University (AB), Webster University (MA), and United States Air Force Flight Training.

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