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Pete Lived Quality and Pete Loved His Work
I never tired of watching Pete at work. He had spent over thirty years working in the warehouse of a large tire wholesaler. His primary job was to inspect tires before they were shipped to our customers. The tires we sold varied from tires used on golf carts to those that would be mounted on the giant trucks used in surface coal-mining operations. As I watched Pete at work, two things stood out.
First, Pete could not be rushed into short-changing the inspections he conducted. Voices around him might be crying out, “Hurry up we’ve got to get these tires on a truck in twenty minutes,” but Pete would continue with his very careful, methodical inspections of the tires. Clearly, Pete understood that you couldn’t cheat a process and still end up with quality products and services. Nobody needed to watch Pete to ensure that he did high quality work. He lived out Henry Ford’s dictum, “quality means doing the right thing when no one is looking.”
Second, Pete seemed to always be happy. When he thought no one was looking, he’d be singing to himself. When asked a question, he always responded with a smile. I never heard him even come close to complaining about the work he did, in many ways very difficult work done in a rather bleak environment.
When I started at the company, I often asked myself, just what is it that drives Pete to do such consistently high quality work and what is it that makes him so happy about the work that he’s doing?
After I’d been on the job for about three months, I figured out the answer to my question.
I observed that Sam, the owner of the company, was in the warehouse regularly talking with Pete. Their discussions were often quite animated. I joined a few of them. Sam and Pete would typically be talking about ways to improve the tire inspection processes. And they appeared to thoroughly enjoy their discussions. What struck me most about their interactions was the great respect Sam showed for Pete’s thinking. He and Pete argued about how to best do things. Their arguments had the flavor of discussions between old friends who admired and respected each other. There were no “winners” or “losers” after their discussions ended. Pete and Sam would reach consensus that one person’s idea was in this case the best one. Sometimes it was Sam’s, more commonly it was Pete’s.
I’m reminded of an interview conducted with Steve Jobs shortly before his death in 2011. Jobs said that he spent much of his time at Apple walking through the hallways and dropping in on work groups, engaging them in the discussions about their work. He said “we have marvelous arguments.” Asked if he always won these arguments, Jobs smiled and said “Of course not. I wish I did.” He added, “If you want to keep good employees, an organization has to be run by the best ideas, not by hierarchy.”
Run by the best ideas, not by hierarchy.
While Steve Jobs was still a kid in high school, Sam intuitively operated on the basis of this concept. His behaviors said loud and clear to employees like Pete, “I respect you. I need your best thinking. You’re a very valuable member of our team.”
When this kind of thinking permeates an organization, great things happen. High quality products and services are delivered to very pleased customers. Employees are continually thinking about ways to improve the work they’re doing. Employees are happy to be at work. They’re just like Pete.
There’s no magic involved in building this kind of a workforce. What it takes is a leadership team, the members of which consistently demonstrate that they respect their employees and need their ideas on ways to improve the organization’s productivity and profitability.
What behaviors make it obvious that leaders respect their employees?
First, it takes leaders who walk through the areas where the company’s products are being made, or services delivered. In Lean Lingo, that’s called going to the Gemba.
Second, it takes leaders who engage employees in discussions about the work they’re doing, discussions during which they do much more than just listen. They engage. They argue. They show respect. Good communication is much more than a listening exercise. The best communication happens when, as Steve Jobs said, “we have marvelous arguments.”
Just doing these two things, walking through the areas where the work is happening and engaging in animated discussions with employees will drive remarkable changes in employee satisfaction and employee engagement. You’ll begin to create a cadre of Petes, a cadre of champions.
Doing this would be a great beginning. Next should come the selective application of the thinking processes and tools of Lean manufacturing. St. Louis Community College’s Corporate Services Group has a wide variety of Lean training and consulting resources that will transform your employees into a championship team made up of folks like Pete. And, as a result, you’ll see marked gains in productivity and profitability. Call me anytime at 314-303-0612 and let’s schedule a time to meet to review these resources.