Thinking is Everybody’s Job

By on March 5, 2015
Lean Idea Board in Action

You shouldn’t be asking me that question. You should be asking my supervisor.” I really wasn’t sure how to respond to this line worker response to my question, “Do you have any ideas on how we could improve the layout of your work area?” After a moment I replied, “With due respect for your supervisor, what you just said is absolutely not true. Because you do the work you have better ideas than anyone else on how to improve the area.

Her response to what I said was a smile and silence. What I said may have been true but it was also inadequate. Over years this line worker had been taught dependency and no paraphrase on my part of the wisdom of Henry Ford or Taiichi Ohno, the two prime architects of Lean manufacturing, was going to change her perspective on her position in the knowledge hierarchy in her workplace. She was at the bottom. And folks at the bottom work; they don’t think. Why don’t they think? Because they’ve been taught not to.

Just by chance a month or so later I had a conversation with this worker’s supervisor. We were talking about his company’s “Idea Board,” that elegantly simple and powerful tool to drive employee engagement developed by David Mann and described in his book, Creating a Lean Culture. For readers not familiar with the “Idea Board,” it’s a simple board with four columns on which employees put Post-it® notes with ideas about waste that they’ve spotted or process improvements that could be made in their work areas.

Back to my conversation with her supervisor. I mentioned to him that employees in his work area had very few postings on their Idea Board. I asked if he had any ideas as to why this was the case. His response brought home with great clarity just exactly what had triggered the line worker’s comments, “You should be asking my supervisor.

He said, “You know this is what I think about the Idea Board. I think that if the people who work for me post examples of waste or improvements in work processes needed in my area this must mean that I’m a poor supervisor.” I responded, “Actually it would mean just the opposite. If your team had a lot of posts on your Idea Board that would mean that you’re a very good supervisor.

Clearly my statement wasn’t convincing. Like the line worker, years of operating within a top down, command structure had deeply ingrained into his thinking stereotypical images of the roles of supervisors and line workers. He really believed, “I think; they work.

The primary challenge faced by any organization undergoing a Lean transformation is to break down these stereotypes, opening the minds of both line workers and management to the power of entirely new relationships with each other. It also means opening the minds of all members of the management team to the great value of the knowledge and creativity of their line workers. And it’s helping the management team realize that unleashing this knowledge and creativity is their primary job responsibility. It’s a job responsibility that trumps all others.

How can supervisors and managers prepare themselves to operate effectively in a Lean work environment? St. Louis Community College’s Corporate Services Group has a wide variety of training and coaching resources, well tested on the front lines of manufacturing, that can make this happen.

I’d very much value the opportunity to discuss these resources with you. Call me anytime at 314-303-0612 and let’s schedule a meeting. And, by the way, if you’re interested in learning more about the impact of the Idea Board and other Lean services, here’s a video that I’m sure you’ll find interesting.

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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