Do You Value Your Employees?

By on January 11, 2017
Do You Value Your Employees?

And do your employees know you value them?

Ask any managers and supervisors if they value their employees and the inevitable answer will be “of course.” Talk to workers on the line and comments like the following are far too common:

Note: Each of the following anecdotes are as related to me by line workers.

Steve suggested a way to eliminate waste in a work process to his supervisor. His supervisor responded, “Good idea. Let’s talk about it.” Days passed by and nothing happened. Steve mentioned his idea again to his supervisor. The supervisor responded, “Don’t have time now, but it sounds like a good idea.” Again, nothing happened. Steve quit thinking about ways to improve work processes.

Jenny came up with an idea about how to improve work flow in her area and shared it with her supervisor who responded, “That’s not a good idea. It’d never work.” Jenny quit thinking about ways to improve work processes.

Mary said, “I talked to my supervisor about a production problem. It was like talking to a brick. He wasn’t listening to a word I was saying.” Mary quit thinking about ways to improve work processes.

Tanisha, in a corporate accounting department, noticed a problem in the way accounts receivable were processed. She shared her observation with the department manager who said, “Don’t worry about that. Just do your job.” Tanisha quit thinking about ways to improve work processes.

Bill, a press operator with over twenty years of experience, watched as the plant engineer made some repairs on his press. He realized that what was being done wouldn’t take care of the problem and suggested to the engineer that they try a different approach. The engineer replied, “Just keep quiet. We pay you to work, not to think.” Bill quit thinking about ways to improve work processes.

Back to the response managers and supervisors give to the question, “Do you value your employees?” What they should have said is “Yes, I value the work they do but I don’t value their ideas.

And back to the question, “And do your employees know you value them?” For Steve, Jenny Mary, Tanisha and Bill, and far too many other employees, the answer would be, “What I do know is that they don’t value me.

And what’s the cost of this type of behavior? The company loses opportunities to profit from the creativity, intelligence, and knowledge of its line workers. The company’s employees become less engaged in their work. When they do their work, they just go through the required motions, never thinking about ways to make their work more productive. The company’s productivity, product quality, and profitability decrease.

Given the negative impact of “We pay employees to work, not to think,” why does the behavior of far too many managers and supervisors reflect this type of thinking? Obviously, many factors contribute to this type of behavior. Having poor communications skills. Being disorganized. Feeling insecure about their ability to do the job. Being detached from the work they’re doing. Believing that the company they work for doesn’t really care about what they think. And many others.

That said, the really destructive kernel of thought that persists in the minds of many managers and supervisors had its origins many years ago in the thinking of Frederick Winslow Taylor, known as the “father of scientific management.”

In giving testimony before a congressional committee investigating the steel industry, Taylor said, “The man who is physically able to handle pig-iron and is sufficiently stupid to choose this for his occupation is rarely able to comprehend the science of handling pig-iron.

In describing the way workers think, Taylor said, “Hardly a competent workman can be found who does not devote a considerable amount of time to studying just how slowly he can work and still convince his employer that he is going at a good pace.

To get right to the heart of the matter, Taylor’s observations teach us that:

  • Workers are stupid.
  • Workers are lazy.
  • Workers can’t be trusted.

Now in the 21st Century one would be hard pressed to find a manager or supervisor who would admit to subscribing to these comments. However, their behavior suggests that their thinking is still infected with Taylorism’s.

Fortunately, other voices are gradually drowning out Taylor’s thinking and relegating it to the dustbin of history where it belongs.

Voices like that of Henry Ford, who understood that workers had to be trusted to do quality work. Ford knew that while the mechanics of work could be “scientifically managed” the minds of workers could not be. He knew that the desire to do quality work had to be internalized in each worker. He knew workers were not inherently lazy; he knew they were not stupid; he knew they could be trusted. Reflecting these convictions, Ford said, “Quality means doing the right think when no one is looking.

Voices like that of Taiichi Ohno, one of the key architects of Lean Manufacturing, who tells us “at Toyota workers are told that they are being paid to work and to think and that, of the two, thinking is the most important.

Voices like that of Steve Jobs who, in one of his last interviews, said “If you want to keep good employees you have to listen to their ideas.

What are some immediate steps a company should take to translate the thinking of Ford, Ohno, and Jobs into actions by their managers and supervisors? They should do the following:

  • The organization’s leadership team should candidly address this question: Do we believe that one of our greatest assets is the knowledge and creativity of line workers? If the answer is “no,” they need to think about the way in which companies that respond “yes” to this question have prospered, companies like Toyota, Ford Motor Company, Boeing, Virginia Mason Hospital and many others. They need to learn more about the transformative power of Lean thinking and work processes. If the answer is “yes,” they should review the ways in which the behaviors of their managers and supervisors reinforce worker engagement in the improvement of work processes.
  • Members of the organization’s leadership team should individually make a firm commitment to go to where their products are being produced or services delivered and to interact with line employees, listening to what they have to say, possibly arguing with them, while showing great respect for their thinking. In describing how he spent his time at work, Steve Jobs said that he continually walked around Apple, engaging in discussions with employees and, in his words, “having marvelous arguments.” When asked if he won all these arguments, Jobs chuckled and replied, “I wish I did. But of course I don’t. Companies have to be governed by ideas, not by hierarchy.
  • The organization’s leadership team, in meetings with managers and supervisors, needs to determine the degree to which they are prepared to engage in productive discussions with line workers. If there are doubts about their ability to do this, to provide training and coaching to make them capable of fulfilling what is arguably their primary job responsibility: to put the knowledge and creativity of line workers to work in driving continuous improvement.

Should all companies value the knowledge and creativity of their line workers? Absolutely. Do employees need to know this? Absolutely. And when this happens, what will the outcome be? Work processes will continuously improve, driving significant gains in both productivity and profitability.

St. Louis Community College’s Workforce Solutions Group has well-tested Lean Manufacturing training and consulting services that will drive transformations in the degree to which line workers become active and effective drivers of continuous improvement. Call me anytime at 314-303-0612 and let’s arrange a time to discuss these services. I know 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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