Two Comments that Kill Productivity

By on November 9, 2016
Comments that Kill Productivity

I’m sure all of us have heard variations of these two comments in conference rooms and on the floors of factories. I suspect many of us flinched when we heard them. And, if you’re like me through much of my career, you shrugged them off and got on with your work. My years of work with Lean manufacturing have finally brought home to me, loud and clear, that these comments are toxic and that, rather than shrugging them off, we need to engage the people who make them in very focused and forceful examinations of the impact they have on productivity and profitability.

This is what they need to know about the “Two Killer Comments.”

1. “Do whatever it takes.”

I’ve heard this comment many times, typically triggered by an approaching deadline that the work team suddenly realizes is probably not going to be met. When this happens, it’s “pedal to the metal” time. It’s “do whatever it takes” time. It’s also “making mistakes” time. Even if a work team has developed carefully thought out and tested standardized work processes, when the clarion call to “do whatever it takes” sounds out, standardized work processes are forgotten and a mad scramble to get the product out the door takes over.

Actually, the greatest danger posed by “do whatever it takes” is that occasionally it will work. I’ve had an experience like this. A group of us worked until 2:00 a.m. to get a product out to one of our major clients. After the products left the company by FedEx, we sat back and said to ourselves, “How great we are. We did it!” We learned from this experience that “do whatever it takes” works. This is exactly what we shouldn’t have learned. What we should have learned is that we needed to carefully analyze the deficient work processes that had triggered “do whatever it takes.” We should have said to ourselves, “we need to make sure that our standardized work processes are improved to prevent a reoccurrence of this situation.”

So what’s the root cause of this behavior? It’s a management team that has forgotten one of the prime directives of Lean manufacturing. Here it is. Following a standardized work process, without any deviations, trumps doing anything to achieve results, every time.

Bottom Line: “Do whatever it takes” should be permanently banished from an organization’s vocabulary. Period.

2. “Don’t come to me with a problem unless you have a solution.”

This is one that absolutely drives me crazy. When I hear it my immediate impulse is to say, “Okay, I want to make sure I understand you. You’re saying that even if there’s a problem that’s damaging productivity, you don’t want to know about it … unless the person telling you also tells you what the solution is. Is this right?” I’ve always managed to restrain myself, because the person saying this is typically so overwrought that my comment would trigger some type of highly unproductive, explosive outburst.

That aside, this comment is incredibly unproductive. Many times employees are aware of problems yet they don’t know how to solve them. To state the obvious, just because an employee doesn’t know how to solve a problem doesn’t mean the problem doesn’t exist. Yet the manager who says “Don’t come to me with a problem unless you have a solution” is engaged in a type of magical thinking that suggests that if we don’t know solutions, we don’t have problems. Obvious nonsense.

So what’s the root cause of this behavior? I believe there are two primary causes. First, many managers whom I’ve observed saying this are operating in a chaotic work environment, moving from one fire fight to another and never stopping to ask themselves why their work is so out of control. What they need is Leader Standard Work Checklists that they follow assiduously, remembering the Lean prime directive; work processes trumps results every time. Second, I believe that a number of managers who make comments like this really don’t believe their subordinates have ideas that are worth listening to. They believe that when it comes to problem solving they are the font of all wisdom. They don’t respect the intelligence, creativity, and knowledge of line workers. In effect, what they’re saying to the worker is “just go away, I’ve got work to do.”

Bottom Line: “Don’t come to me with a problem unless you have a solution” should be permanently banished from an organization’s vocabulary. Period.

Both of these comments are products of mass production thinking. When an organization undertakes a Lean transformation it learns these two principles early on in the process.

Principle One: Standardized Work Processes are the linchpin of continuous improvement. As Taiichi Ohno, key architect of the Toyota Production System teaches us, “Without Standardized Work there can be no continuous improvement.” And Standardized Work Processes can never be side-tracked by a call to “do whatever it takes.”

Principle Two: The best source of information about how to improve work processes is line workers. Nothing should be done to inhibit the free flow of information from the line to all levels of management. Telling a worker “don’t come to me with a problem, unless you have a solution” cuts off communication and damages an organization’s ability to improve work processes. It also shows disrespect for the worker. Lean tells us that productive work environments are characterized by the qualities of respect, trust, and candor.

St. Louis Community College’s Corporate Services Group can provide a wide variety of training and consulting services in support of your Lean transformation. You can reach me anytime at 314-303-0612. Let’s schedule a meeting. I think you’ll find it time very well spent.

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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