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The Invisibility of the Obvious
We’ve all had experiences like this. Something that’s completely obvious to us seems to be invisible to others. We see it. Others don’t. And typically our reaction to this conundrum is to scratch our heads and say to ourselves, “What’s wrong with him, it’s so obvious.”
Well, often it’s not obvious at all. Here are some experiences I’ve had on the front lines of change that have brought home to me loud and clear the difficulty many people have in seeing the obvious.
It was 1986 in an automotive plant in Detroit. The company I worked for was launching a program that was intended to improve work processes by soliciting ideas from frontline employees. During a small group discussion with line workers that I was facilitating, one of the employees said, “George, has anyone told you that the plant’s engineering department ordered equipment that cost $6 million that will never be used?” I asked why it couldn’t be used and was told that it simply wouldn’t work on the line.
The next question I asked was the obvious one: How did this happen? The response: The engineering group never talked to people on the line.
Never talked to the people working on the line. Pretty obvious that doing this would be important, right? Not to the engineers who ordered the unusable equipment. For them, doing this wasn’t obvious at all. It fact, it was invisible.
It was 2006 in a small manufacturing plant in St. Louis. The owner recognized that his company had to change if it was to remain competitive and engaged our group to help them implement some of the tools of Lean manufacturing. During my initial meeting with Bill, the owner, he said to me, “We’ve got some highly skilled employees. I think you’re going to enjoy working with them.”
Several months later, I was walking through the plant’s cafeteria when a line worker came up to me and said, “George I’ve got a story to tell you.” He continued, “Remember how you told us that Bill really wanted our ideas about how to improve our work processes. Well, here’s what happened two days ago. The press I worked on broke down and Bill came out with one of our maintenance guys and they started to do some work on it. Now I’ve worked on this press for over 20 years and knew that what they were doing wouldn’t take care of the problem we were having. So I said, ‘I don’t think what you’re doing is going to work.”
Bill immediately responded with, “Shut up. I don’t pay you to think, I pay you to work.”
“We’ve got some highly skilled employees.” “Shut up. I don’t pay you to think.” The incongruity of the same person making these two comments is obvious, isn’t it? Not to Bill. To him it was, in fact, invisible.
It was 2014. A manufacturer of high tech equipment used in commercial farming asked my group to help them drive a Lean transformation. To start the process, they asked us to survey employees, soliciting their candid input on a number of factors related to Lean readiness. To encourage employees to respond to the online survey, the plant manager wrote a really eloquent note to all employees, telling them “We really need your candid responses to the items on this survey.”
The last item on the survey was a question: Are there any other issues that you’d like to share, not covered by the survey? In response to this question, one employee said, “I’ve learned never to make suggestions in my work group. Doing this is the same as putting a target on your back.”
In reporting on the results of the survey to the company’s leadership team, I mentioned this person’s comment. The CEO’s response was immediate and jarring. Hitting his fist on the conference room table, he shouted, “Find out who said this, we’re going to fire the SOB!”
“We really need your candid responses.” “We’re going to fire the SOB.” Incongruous, right? Not to this CEO. In fact, to him it was invisible.
So what’s to be learned from these experiences? I’ve thought about them a lot and here’s one key lesson that I’ve learned: At an individual level, success is often a barrier to change. Executives who have risen in the ranks using the command and control model of leadership will have a very difficult time adopting the radically different leadership style called for in a Lean transformation.
But change they must if real change is to come to their organization.
And it is naïve to think that change of this magnitude will come quickly or easily. When I’ve seen it happen it comes slowly, driven by direct experience. Gradually, by witnessing the intelligence and creativity of line workers driving improvements in work processes, the blinders of success are lifted.
When this happens, the invisible starts to become visible.