Problem-Solver or Thought-Starter?

By on August 23, 2017
Problem-Solver or Thought-Starter?

Prior to launching a Lean transformation at a manufacturing plant, I had some great discussions with the plant’s leadership team. The plant manager (let’s call him Pete) had done some reading about Lean manufacturing. He had reacted very positively my review of the basic beliefs upon which Lean management processes are based. Pete also appeared to really buy into the importance of Gemba walks, Lean lingo for walks through a production area. He appeared to recognize how regularly walking through production areas and talking with line workers would help him better understand the work they do. He said he also wanted line workers to know that he was very interested in the work they did.

Several weeks later Pete asked me if I’d like to go on a Gemba walk with him and his production manager. I responded that I’d really appreciate having the opportunity to do this.

As we walked through the production area, a couple of things became obvious. Pete interacted easily with line workers. He came across as genuinely interested in the work they did and quite knowledgeable about it. But when he observed problems in production, his demeanor underwent a change. He was no longer engaged in discussions with line workers. He had morphed into problem-solver mode. He’d remark to his production manager, “We’ve got to fix this. Let’s meet this afternoon in the conference room and figure out a way to take care of this issue.” The line worker was no longer part of the equation.

Observing this, I thought about what this experience taught the line worker. And here’s what was obvious. For starters, the line worker had been taught that he wasn’t really capable of contributing to the solving of production problems. And Pete appeared to be totally unaware that this was the lesson he was teaching this line worker. Nor did he seem to be aware of the crippling effect his behavior would have on the plant’s ability to optimize work processes.

Although Pete had read about the importance of listening to line workers to get their best thinking on how to solve production problems, as soon as he was confronted with a production problem he immediately switched to mass production thinking. And what is the source of this type of thinking? There are many, but one that impacted the thinking of generations of managers was Frederick Taylor, referred to by many as the father of scientific management.

And what were Frederick Taylor’s thoughts on work and workers? Here’s a sampling. Taylor said:

“It is absolutely necessary for every man in an organization to become one of a train of gear wheels.”

Taylor didn’t expect workers who made up his “train of gear wheels” to be contributors to process improvements. He said:

“Anybody stupid enough to work in a steel mill can’t possibly understand how to make his work more efficient.”

Would Pete endorse these types of comments? Of course not. In fact he would label them as being not only untrue, but toxic. He would certainly never refer to his line workers as “stupid.” That aside, there still existed within Pete voices that fed his brain some messages which, while more civil than those of Frederick Taylor, were just as toxic. Here’s what these voices were saying:

“It’s my responsibility to solve production problems.”

“I’m better able than line workers to come up with solutions to these problems.”

“Even if my line workers could come up with good solutions to the problems they identify, we don’t have time to wait for them to do this. We need to move quickly to do whatever it takes to solve these problems.”

Here’s what Lean management teaches about Pete’s thoughts.

No, it’s not your responsibility to solve production problems. It is your responsibility to set wheels in motion that will result in these problems being solved. But your role should not be that of problem-solver, it should be that of thought-starter.

No, you’re not better able to solve production problems than your line workers. Because they do the work, they’re better qualified to come up with creative solutions to these problems than you are. Henry Ford was right on target when he said, “If you want to know how to improve work processes, talk with the people who do the work.

Yes, you do have the time to allow your line workers to develop methods of improving work processes based on their examination of the root causes of these problems. Your thinking has to move away from short-term and migrate to long-term. Even if your ideas are better than those of your line workers, you should go with their ideas.

As Jim Womack tells us in his award-winning book, The Machine that Changed the World, “I see the same pattern in many organizations today. Lots of good Lean techniques tied to a mass-production management system, without any awareness that you can’t have sustainable Lean processes without Lean management.”

A question all leaders of Lean Transformations should ask themselves: Am I primarily a problem-solver or a thought-starter? Problem-solver is the wrong answer. Triggering the creativity, knowledge, and intelligence of line workers must be the primary job function of any leader of a Lean transformation, trumping all others.

St. Louis Community College’s Workforce Solutions Group has a wide variety of Lean training and consulting services that will build a “thought-starter” mindset in your management team. I’d value having the opportunity to discuss these resources with you. You can reach me anytime at 314-303-0612. Let’s talk.

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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