Extracting Fear from the Workplace

By on August 17, 2016
Extracting Fear from the Workplace

Fear is the number one enemy of improved productivity and profitability. It destroys morale. It stokes anger. It triggers feelings of frustration. It creates cynicism. It nurtures a climate of silence. It shuts down creativity. It robs energy. It stifles the free flow of information. In deludes managers into thinking they are in control. It causes leadership to make poor decisions.

Fear is a dark angel that hovers, unacknowledged, over many workplaces.

I’ve heard the voice of fear and observed its impact. I’ve seen it at work on the factory floor and in corporate offices. And I’m sure you have also.

What is the sound of fear?

A worker approached me and said, “I’ve got an idea about how a problem we’ve been having with misaligned labels could be solved. Would you mind telling our manager about my idea? And please don’t let him know that it came from me.” I responded, “Why don’t you just tell him yourself?” She replied, “I don’t want my supervisor to know that I said this. If he found out, he’d think I was criticizing him and he’d be angry.

I was walking through a production area and asked a worker if she had any ideas on how the configuration of her work area could be improved. Haltingly she replied, “I’m not the person to talk to about that. You need to talk to my supervisor.

I asked a first level supervisor why she had never posted any ideas about how to improve work processes on their Idea Board. She replied, “I’ve learned to never make any suggestions, doing so is the same as putting a bull’s-eye on your back. I’ve learned that the best way to get along here is to keep quiet.

Fear blocks the free flow of information. And when this happens the ability of an organization to have the agility needed to be a successful competitor in the highly volatile 21st Century marketplace is greatly diminished.

How can fear be extracted from a workplace? In my opinion, three things have to happen.

First, the presence of fear must be acknowledged.

This can’t and won’t happen until the leadership of an organization becomes aware of the disconnect between their view of operations and what’s actually happening “on the floor.” A good starting point in becoming aware of the magnitude of this disconnect would be for the leadership team to ask itself how often they hear the words “no problems” from their direct reports when they are asked to report on operations. As Taiichi Ohno, key architect of the Toyota Production System has pointed out, “having no problems is the biggest problem of all.” The point Taiichi is making is simple: Since absolute perfection doesn’t exist it’s not possible that there are “no problems.” Further, to the extent that an organization’s leadership team isn’t aware of the myriad of problems that exist in their operation, they are living in a world of illusions, a very dangerous world to inhabit.

The simple question a leadership team must ask itself is this: Is the information we get about operations tailored to match up with what employees think we want to hear or is it based on facts? In far too many organizations, facts are massaged to match up with what leadership wants to hear. And why does this happen? Fear of the way leaders might react to reality.

Until the presence of fear as a block to the free flow of information is acknowledged, steps to extract fear from the workplace won’t be taken.

Second, the leadership team needs to reexamine the way in which they react to the word “problem.”

What do they think causes problems? Is it people or work processes? To the degree that they see problems as being primarily a function of people problems rather than process problems their actions will create fear in the workplace.

Hiroyoshi Yashiki was one of the key members of the startup team at Toyota’s manufacturing plant in Georgetown, Kentucky. In reflecting on some of the challenges they faced, Yashiki noted, “We were most surprised by the reaction of the people when we asked about problems. The reactions from Americans were very, very negative. We were surprised. It does not have a negative connotation for us in Japan. Americans think ‘I messed up.’ We were faced with the challenge of how to make the word ‘problem’ a positive word rather than a negative word. We worked hard to separate the problem from the person.”

Third, the leadership team needs to change the way employees think about the word “problem.”

All employees need to understand that the identification of problems and the unfiltered reporting of problems are highly valued. They need to understand that the word “problem” is a positive term and that it is only through the continuing identification of problems in work processes that their company will be successful.

Initiatives such as these will support this shift in thinking:

  • Members of the leadership team regularly going to production areas and talking with employees about the work they are doing, asking for their input on ways to improve productivity.
  • Using the Idea Board, an elegantly simple and powerful tool to stimulate employee engagement in the identification of problems in work processes. The Idea Board sends this message loud and clear to all employees: We respect your intelligence and creativity and we need your ideasWatch this video about the Idea Board.
  • Acting on Henry Ford’s observation that “all work is an experiment” and that the failure of an experiment is as valuable long term as its success. Reward experimentation.
  • Making sure that all employees understand that problems are about work processes, not about people. When this happens one of the major drivers of fear in the workplace will have been eliminated. Never attack people. Always focus on weaknesses in work processes.

When initiatives like these are taken fear will begin to be extracted from the workplace, replaced by respect, trust, and candor as the defining characteristics of the organization.

Finally, how important is it to drive out fear? As Dr. Deming pointed out in the 8th of his 14 key principles for management, “drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company.”

When this happens, really beautiful things will happen in the workplace. Comments such as the following will no longer be heard:

“I don’t want my supervisor to know that I said this. If he found out, he’d think I was criticizing him and he’d be angry.”

“I’m not the person to talk to about that. You need to talk to my supervisor.”

“I’ve learned to never make any suggestions, doing so is the same as putting a bull’s-eye on your back.”

Simple shifts in thinking can have a profound impact on operations. When the stigma many of us attach to the term “problem” is removed one of the key drivers of fear will have been eliminated.

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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