Anger, Respect, and Productivity

By on April 5, 2018
Anger, Respect, and Productivity

Thirty-two years ago I had the opportunity to work with a group delivering team-building training at New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. (NUMMI), that joint venture of Toyota and GM in Fremont, California. During the 80s, I had also done work at GM plants in Detroit. There couldn’t have been two work environments that stood in starker contrast to each other than these.

The GM plants in Detroit were dirty, messy places filled with unhappy and angry workers producing low quality automobiles.

The GM/Toyota NUMMI plant in Fremont was super clean and orderly and filled with happy, highly motivated workers producing high quality automobiles.

The GM plants in Detroit had high absenteeism rates; NUMMI’s absenteeism rate was very low.

It was obvious that the primary emotions driving the behavior of workers in the Detroit plants were anger and cynicism, emotions clearly absent in the Fremont workers.

And I would add that workers in both the Detroit and Fremont plants were represented by the United Auto Workers.

Just exactly what was the force that drove such stark contrasts between worker attitudes and product quality in these plants?

One simple phrase answers this question: Showing respect for workers.

And why is showing respect for workers of such supreme importance? Because not showing respect triggers anger and showing respect diffuses it.

Some of you may be saying to yourselves, “This is all so obvious. No one would disagree with it.

Yes, it is obvious. Unhappily there’s often a deep divide between what we know and how we act. In far too many plants I’ve seen managers at work whose behaviors are perfectly suited to driving anger and cynicism in their workforce. Their disdain for their workforce shows through in many ways. Often the disdain they feel is disguised, at other times, it is overt. They don’t go to the line and talk with workers. They don’t provide methods for workers to contribute ideas on ways to improve productivity. As one worker said to me, “I told the plant manager that I knew what was wrong with the equipment I was working on and he replied, ‘Shut up. I pay you to work and not to think.’

What kinds of thinking does this behavior very predictably drive?

I’ve had workers say to me, “I don’t care if the tool I was using broke, it wasn’t mine, it belonged to the company.

I’ve had workers say to me, “The company doesn’t care about us. They’re not interested in what we think.

I had a worker say to me, “If the company wants any of my ideas about how to improve productivity they’re going to have to pay me for them first.

So what was happening at the NUMMI plant that made workers believe that they were respected? What was happening that drove cynicism and anger out of this workplace?

The behaviors of management, shaped by the beliefs undergirding the Toyota Production System, continually demonstrated respect for workers in hundreds of subtle and not so subtle ways. Managers wore the same clothes as assembly workers. There were no reserved parking spaces. There was no executive dining room, just a common cafeteria. Workers were not furloughed during production down times, instead they were provided with various types of on-site training. Managers came to the line and talked with first-line supervisors and with workers.

And this last one had the greatest impact. In Lean talk it’s called “Going to the Gemba.” Going to the line and having face to face discussions with line workers, hearing them describe production problems and ways to address these problems. Really listening to what they had to say.

Recently, I’ve observed firsthand the impact of doing this. One of my clients decided to regularly meet on-the-line with workers. Initially, many of the workers held back in commenting on their work environments or work processes. A number were obviously waiting to see what happened with the comments a few of their number were making. And then a great thing happened. By the next week’s meeting, when it had become obvious that the facilitator of the meeting was in fact listening carefully to what was being said, more started to speak. What had started as an almost painfully quiet meeting had morphed into a vigorous discussion.

As I observed what was happening, I thought to myself, “These are exactly the kind of exchanges that help convince a workforce that their ideas are needed and that they personally are respected.”

When this happens that great enemy of productivity and product quality, anger, will start to dissipate.

What I’ve just said is not complicated stuff so why don’t more managers practice what managers at NUMMI did? I think one word answers that question and that word is fear. Fear of letting go. Fear of losing control. Fear of unknown waters.

For those managers who are afraid to take this step into the unknown, I have this advice. Look at the evidence, undebatable, of the impact that NUMMI thinking has on productivity and profitability and ask yourself if you can afford to risk your future and your company’s future by not adopting it.

So what’s the best way for managers seeped in the command and control mindset to change the way they think? Taiichi Ohno, one of the key architects of the Toyota Production System, has the best answer to this question: “It’s easier to act your way to a new way of thinking than to think your way to a new way of acting.

About a year ago, I toured the Toyota Plant in Princeton, Indiana. In the lobby I read this statement: “At TMMI we seek to create an environment where team members feel comfortable admitting and fixing mistakes. By exposing and solving problems and bringing forth issues, team members take ownership of their success and take pride in the quality of their work.”

And this is a posting I saw on the line, “Being able to have an impact on someone’s life at a time when they need help the most makes me feel good. TMMI Team Member.”

What a beautiful expression of the power of teamwork, the power of respect, the power of going to the Gemba. There’s no better time to start building these kind of very positive attitudes in your organization then now.

Go to the Gemba. Talk with your employees. Listen carefully to what they have to say. Let them know that you’re listening. Do this regularly and the changes you’ll see in your employees and in yourself will be beautiful to see and to experience.

St. Louis Community College’s Workforce Solutions Group has a wide variety of resources that can drive the kind of changes I’ve just described in your organization. These resources include Leadership seminars, Lean Manufacturing programs, Personal Development seminars, and others. Each of these programs is facilitated by individuals who are highly skilled, and very knowledgeable with a wide range of experiences that make them uniquely qualified to deliver high impact training and coaching.

To learn more about how these resources can be put to work for your company, just call Eric Whitehead at 314-539-5022 or George Friesen at 314-303-0612. We’d appreciate having the opportunity to discuss them with you. We’re confident that 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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