Shush, Don’t Let The Boss Find Out About It!

By on August 6, 2013
Shush, don’t let the boss find out

Over the last thirty years of doing performance improvement consulting and training in a wide variety of industries, I’ve heard many variants of the following types of comments:

“Before we met with our CEO we had a meeting so everyone could be prepped on what to say and what not to say. What he heard was a fiction.”

“I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut. Making a process improvement suggestion in this company is the same as putting a target on your back.”

“I’ve got an idea about how we could fix that problem on the line but whatever you do don’t tell anybody that I told you.”

To what degree are your organization’s employees engaging in these types of activities or making these types of comments? You need to know because to the extent that this type of thinking is alive and well in your organization, your ability to manage is severely crippled. I’m certain we’d all agree that good management depends upon good information and that if your company’s leadership team is, “hearing a fiction,” the management decisions they make will be flawed.

Lean transformations, when successful, drive fiction out of an organization’s information flow and replace it with fact. Lean thinking has no patience with “things as we wish they were” or “things as I’d like for them to be.” Lean’s sole focus is on “things as they are.”

In 1986, I was part of a group doing team-building training at New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. (known as NUMMI), in Fremont, CA. NUMMI was a joint venture of Toyota and General Motors. The plant was the first facility in the United States to manufacture Toyota vehicles. It operated in what had been a Chevrolet truck plant and, at the time I was there, manufactured the Chevrolet Nova. Several years later they manufactured the Toyota Corolla and Geo Prism. Managed by Toyota using the Toyota Production System, NUMMI gave GM an opportunity to see Lean manufacturing in action.

Virtually from the beginning of production, NUMMI produced the most defect free cars in Chevrolet’s line. They did this despite the fact that the workforce was largely made up of individuals who had worked in the plant when it was under Chevrolet management and was, according to the United Auto Workers, the worst workforce in the United States. It was reported that they regularly drank on the job and committed numerous acts of industrial sabotage to damage the quality of the vehicles they were assembling.

How did this dramatic turnabout happen? Here’s what made it happen: open communication. At NUMMI there was no “Shush, don’t let the boss find out about is.”

Now open communication didn’t just happen. Lean thinking is what drove it. Here’s just one anecdote that will illustrate how open communication came to happen at NUMMI. In the early stages of plant operation under Toyota management, managers, when asking supervisors how things were going in their area, would often be met with the comment, “No problem.” Now Lean teaches that “no problem” is impossible and further that leaders can’t lead and managers can’t manage if they don’t have an intimate awareness of what the problems are.

To address this crisis in information flow, a meeting was called with all supervisors. The basic message delivered to these supervisors was “No problem is a problem.” Supervisors left the meeting clearly understanding that the next time they were asked “How are things going in your area?” they’d be expected to give a precise answer to this question by describing mistakes that had been made, manufacturing processes that needed improvement, etc. And they also understood that they’d be commended for doing this because they’d be providing the plant’s leadership team with exactly what they needed to know to be effective leaders.

There’s no “let’s rehearse what we’re going to tell the CEO” in Lean work environments and that’s one of the major reasons why they’re so productive and profitable. Candor and trust really do pay off.

Would you like to drive higher levels of candor and trust in your organization? Call me anytime at 314-303-0612 and let’s talk about how our resources can make this 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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