Work and the Meaning of Life

By on March 17, 2015
Work and the Meaning of Life

A couple of years ago I was doing a Gemba walk (A Japanese term for going to the actual place where work happens) on the production floor at one of my clients. I stopped in a work area and asked a fellow named Bill if he’d thought about ways of improving his work processes. As part of the Lean transformation his company was undergoing, all employees had been asked to identify waste in their work processes. Bill responded, “Do you want an honest answer?” I said, “That’d be the only kind that would mean anything.

That opened the door to a stream of words I’d heard variations of in many workplaces. He said, “George, here’s my short answer to that question. It’s of no interest to me.” I asked him why he would say that. He replied, “Here’s the way I think about the work I do. I get paid to work eight hours a day. It doesn’t really make any difference if I process ten units a day or eight. So why would it make any difference if I thought about the work I was doing and was able to shave two minutes off of the time? Tell you what, when I’m in this place I think about my life and my life sure as hell isn’t here.

Fast forward three months. I was once again doing a Gemba walk and as I walked through Bill’s work area he called out to me, “George, come on over, I want to tell you something.” I came over to his work bench and said, “What’s up?” The words came quickly, filled with a lot of energy and emotion. He said, “About a month ago I was doing my work and happened to overhear two of the guys who work in my area talking about a problem they were having with a piece of equipment. As I heard them describe the problem, I realized I knew how to take care of it so I walked over and told them how I thought they could fix the equipment. My idea worked. And when I walked back to my work bench I realized that what I had done really felt good.

Then came the clincher: Bill continued, “That got me thinking about the big chunk of my life that I spend in this plant. And it got me thinking about whether I wanted to spend this time sleep walking or using my brain. I decided that if I continued down the path I had been on for a number of years that I was wasting a big part of my life. And, finally, I realized that we all get only one trip through life. Now I do spend time thinking about how to improve the work I do and for me work is a lot more enjoyable.

I’ve thought a lot about what Bill told me. On a personal level, it gave me a renewed and reenergized understanding of the great value of Lean transformations, both in terms of the gains in productivity and profitability they can deliver but, of equal importance, the value they can bring to the lives of individual employees. In fact, the two – corporate impact and individual impact – are tightly linked. Employees who enjoy their work do better work. There’s no question in my mind that the work Bill is doing now is delivering a lot more value to his employer than it had for years before he had his epiphany about work and life.

Companies that have undergone a sustainable Lean transformation convey this to their employees: We pay you to do two things. To work and to think. Of these two, thinking is more important than working.

The Corporate Services Group of St. Louis Community College offers a wide variety of training and consulting services that can trigger real change in the way your employees think about the work they do. And when this change happens your organization will experience some very significant gains in productivity and profitability.

I believe you’d like to have a lot of “Bills” working for you. And I’d very much appreciate having the opportunity to discuss with you how we can make that happen.

Call me anytime at 314-303-0612 and let’s schedule a meeting.

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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