Two Invaluable Lessons from the Frontline

By on March 6, 2014
Invaluable Lessons from the Frontline

Recently, on one of these wintry days that invite self-reflection, I asked myself what the most important lessons were that I’d been taught by my clients.

Here are two that stood out very sharply in my memory …

The first lesson had to do with the power of “what do you think?”

Our team meeting had just ended. It had been a meeting filled with surprises. The biggest surprise came from a guy named Kevin. Since we had started having these bi-weekly 5S team meetings, Kevin had sat in the back of the room, appearing to be either angry or totally bored. Then, at this meeting, something very surprising happened. We were discussing a problem on the line and one of the team members just happened to turn to Kevin and say to him, “Kevin, how do you think we could fix this problem?” Kevin appeared startled by the question but after a moment’s hesitation he described a fix. And his fix worked.

What Do You Think?A couple of team meetings later, Kevin walked up to me after the meeting and, with tears in his eyes, said, “Do you remember when Mary asked me if I had any ideas about how to fix that problem we were having on the line?” I told him that I certainly did remember it. His response brought tears to my eyes. He said, “After twenty years of working here that was the first time anyone ever said to me, ‘Kevin, what do you think?’”

These four words, what do you think, made an indelible impression on Kevin’s life. We all have a lot of Kevin’s working for us, individuals with knowledge and creativity just waiting to be tapped. And it’s all waiting there for the asking. Why don’t we ask, what do you think more often?

The second lesson had to do with the power of engagement.

I was drinking a cup of coffee in a client’s cafeteria when a guy who worked on the line came over and said to me, “George, I want to tell you a story that I think you’ll find interesting. You know, until about five months ago, my attitude toward work went like this. You clock in at seven-thirty and you clock out at five. Every now and then I’d realize that if I thought about it I could come up with ways of making my work more productive. I quickly put these thoughts out of my mind. I said to myself, why do it? Trying to figure out better ways to do things won’t increase my pay. Fifteen years slipped by. For me work was boring, it was a place I couldn’t leave soon enough. But, hey, I was getting paid.”

Bill continued, “And then a strange thing happened. I overheard a couple of guys talking about a problem they were having on the line and realized that I knew how to solve it. So I walked over, told them how to take care of it, and walked off. They followed my advice. My solution worked. And it felt good.”

Nobody Asked Me!Becoming more animated, Bill said “this experience really got me thinking. The first thing I thought about was the fact that we only get one trip through life. I realized that a big part of my one trip through was being spent here at work. The second thing I thought about was that by not using my brains at work I was really wasting my one trip through. I was cheating myself. I started getting involved in thinking about my work and how to do it better. I started to really focus on the work I was doing. And then some strange things happened. Time went by more quickly. Work became a lot more enjoyable. I was a lot happier, both at work and at home.”

What Bill had described was the power of engagement. The type of experience Bill had is discussed in Jim Womack’s classic, Lean Thinking. Citing research conducted by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi at the University of Chicago, Womack notes “the types of activities that make people feel best involve a clear objective, a need for concentration so intense that no attention is left over, a lack of interruptions and distractions, clear and immediate feedback on progress toward the objective, and a sense of challenge—the perception that one’s skills are adequate, but just adequate, to cope with the task at hand.” Womack continues, “When people find themselves in these conditions they lose their self-consciousness and sense of time. They report that the task itself becomes the end rather than a means to something more satisfying, like money or prestige.”

And what triggers the intense focus that Womack describes? It all starts with the experience Kevin had, a life-changing experience triggered by these four words, what do you think. And it’s solidified by insights of the sort Bill described. We all get only one trip through so we may as well make it a good one.

Lean thinking and work processes stimulate this sort of thinking and provide these kind of experiences. I’d very much appreciate having the opportunity to discuss with you the way our Lean resources could change the lives of your Kevin’s and Bill’s. Here’s a video that describes the impact of one of these resources: The Idea Board visually poses the question, what do you think, and invites high degrees of engagement in the improvement of work processes. With more engaged employees, your company’s productivity and profitability will go up. You can reach me, George Friesen, anytime at 314-303-0612. Let’s talk.

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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