Knowing Too Much and Too Little at The Same Time

By on August 26, 2015
Knowing Too Much and Too Little

I’ll never forget this plant manager. A very hard working guy. He spent much of his day in his office glued to his computer monitor. Many more hours were spent reviewing Excel spreadsheets and meeting with his direct reports analyzing numbers having to do with all aspects of production. Bulletin boards in the plant were replete with reports containing numbers and graphs that very few employees read and even fewer understood.

Despite the long hours this plant manager spent studying numbers, line workers would tell me that he knew almost nothing about what was happening on the plant floor. What this plant manager was doing was a perfect example of what Taiichi Ohno, chief architect of the Toyota Production System, meant when he observed, “I wouldn’t call looking at numbers managing, I’d call it monitoring.

Far too many managers know too much and too little at the same time. They know a lot about production numbers and quality statistics and far too little about what has to happen to drive higher levels of production and product quality.

They have been victimized by what some have called “data smog.”

Taiichi Ohno commented on this phenomenon when he said, “Data is of course important in manufacturing but I place the greatest emphasis on facts.

So what’s this distinction between data and facts? Aren’t they the same? Well, yes, in a sense they are. But here’s the absolutely vital point that Taiichi Ohno is making, as he expressed it:

“If you base your judgments on documents you received, you’re most likely going to make wrong decisions. If you have even the slightest doubt in the information you received, you must step onto the shop floor for verification.”

The most important “facts” in a manufacturing plant reside on the shop floor where the products are made.

Had the very ineffective, hard-working plant manager engaged in management practices congruent with Taiichi Ohno’s thinking, what are some of the key things he would have done differently?

  • He would have spent at least 25% of his time each week on the line engaged in very tightly focused discussions with frontline supervisors and line workers about ways to eliminate waste from production processes. His work on the line would have been guided by a Standardized Work Document that specified the types of observations that he should make.
  • He would have taken the facts he learned on the line and made them the focal point of meetings with his leadership team. He would have told his leadership team that at their meetings each of them should report on the mistakes made in the areas for which they had responsibility and that he, in turn, would report to them on all of the mistakes he had made. They would “put all of their mistakes on the table” and, working together, decide how to address them.
  • He would have let all of his managers know that their primary responsibility, taking precedence over all others, was to develop people to:
    1.  Surface problems.
    2.  Solve problems
    and to create an environment where this happens.
  • He would have made sure that all employees knew that their company highly valued their creativity and knowledge and depended upon their insights into ways to improve work processes and product quality.

If our plant manager did these things, he would have transformed himself from being a monitor into the much more important role of being a manager. He would have ceased being an observer and would have become an orchestrator—a key driver—of improved work processes and higher quality products. And he would have done this by triggering the knowledge and creativity of his entire workforce.

Our Corporate Services Group has a wide variety of resources that you can use to help your managers and supervisors become highly effective leaders, mastering the skills needed to drive ongoing, positive change in your organization. If you’d like to learn more about these resources, just call me anytime at 314-303-0612 and let’s talk. I look forward to it.

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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