Making Lean Stick – Nobody Ever Asked Me…

By on March 13, 2013
Nobody Ever Asked Me

About ten years ago, I was meeting with a group of line workers who were members of their plant’s 5S team. We were having a very active and productive discussion about ways of improving the configuration of some areas in the plant. During this discussion, a fellow named Dave, previously a sullen and at times overtly belligerent member of the group, made some very astute observations about one of the issues we were tackling. Others picked up on Dave’s train of thought and soon the group had come up with a solution to what had been a very thorny problem. And it was obvious to everyone that it was Dave whose insights and creativity were the tipping point that led to a very creative solution to this problem. Dave also realized it.

Following the meeting, Dave came up to me with tears in his eyes and told me that in his close to twenty years of working on the line no one had ever said to him, “Dave, how do you think we could improve the way we build these seats?” He told me that he’d often had ideas about how to improve productivity. I asked him why he hadn’t shared them with other people and he gave me an answer that I’ve never forgotten: “Nobody ever asked me.”

Nobody ever asked me.” I don’t think I fully appreciated the significance of Dave’s comment until several years later after I had seen, over and over again, the degree to which line worker intelligence and creativity is neither valued nor sought. I’ve thought a lot about why this is the case. I’ve seen it in companies that are seriously attempting to implement lean. I’ve seen it coming from a wide range of individuals, from first level supervisors to individuals in the highest levels of management. Many seem to be quite conversant with lean. They know, for example, that “Continuous Improvement” and “Respect for People” are the twin pillars that need to undergird a successful effort to implement lean. Finally, most have read that continuous improvement and respect for people are absolutely intertwined. You really can’t have one without the other.

Unfortunately, what these individuals know often doesn’t translate into effective action. The idea of continuous improvement is all too often interpreted as needing to conduct a sporadic series of “kaizen” events; the idea of showing respect for people as having a good benefits package.

It’s far too seldom that corporate leadership teams realize that within the context of lean thinking, respect for people means believing that line workers often have insights about how to improve productivity that elude first line supervisors, managers, and the executive leadership team. And it means acting upon this belief. Their “Daves” and ‘Marys” have to know that their ideas are needed and highly valued.

Anyone who has read the literature about lean manufacturing knows that its failure rate is about 75%. This doesn’t have to be the case. To cut right to the chase, asking “Daves” and “Marys” for their ideas about how to improve work processes will often spell the difference between the failure and success of an organization’s attempt to successfully transition to lean. In a monograph published by the American Society of Quality entitled “The Role of Front-Line Ideas in Lean Performance Improvement”, the authors, Alan Robinson of the University of Massachusetts and Dean Schroeder of Valparaiso University, observe the following:

“High-Performance idea systems were found to be a major factor in successful lean initiatives for three reasons: First, they created a ‘lean culture’ of daily improvement. Second, they addressed improvement opportunities that were difficult for managers to spot. Third, they promoted rapid organizational learning.”

One of the highest performing idea systems I’ve seen in my thirty-five years as a performance improvement consultant is called “The Idea Board.” See our article and video containing interviews with employees from three of our clients, Hydromat & Edge Technologies, RugDoctor, and GSI Diversified talking about the impact of the Idea Board. As you’ll appreciate after watching this video, the Idea Board creates a work environment in which “Daves” and “Marys” understand that their ideas are needed and highly valued. Doing this it drives shifts in the way employees think about their work. As Kevin Meehan, Chief Operating Officer of Hydromat & Edge Technologies, comments in the video:

“The Idea Board has changed the way people think about what they do. They’re thinking more in terms of how do I do it better, how do I do it more efficiently.”

When the kind of shift that Kevin describes happens, the organization has taken a major step toward the highly successful implementation of lean. They won’t have any “Daves” or “Marys” saying “Nobody ever asked me.” They will have created a work environment in which employees fully utilize their knowledge and creativity in the energetic pursuit of perfection.

Finally, the Idea Board is an example of the power of simplicity. Elegant simplicity. I’ll be writing more about elegant simplicity in future blogs. If you’d like to discuss the use of the Idea Board in your organization, you can reach me anytime at 314-303-0612. I look forward to talking with you.

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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