Let’s Hear It for the Snitches!

By on July 26, 2018
Let’s Hear It for the Snitches!

Tattle tale, tattle tale
Swinging on a cow’s tail
When you need a cup of tea
You can have a drink of p**
Snitches get stiches and end up in ditches
-Playground Rhymes

From a very early age, you and I learned that being a “tattletale” or a “snitch” is one of the very worst things we could be. I knew that if the guys on the playground found out that I’d told the teacher that Jim had copied my answers on an arithmetic test I’d be in danger of getting a good beating.

So, I said nothing. And Jim learned nothing.

In the sing-song chants of the playground, what happened to snitches was very dramatically described, they “end up in ditches” or, alternatively, they “get stiches.”

Fast forward to adulthood in the modern workplace.

The lessons of childhood about being a snitch are alive and well. Harry has observed his friend Al service equipment without doing a lockout-tagout (LOTO). He has told Al that doing this was dangerous. Al has brushed off his warnings.

Harry knows that if he tells Al’s supervisor that his friend wasn’t practicing required safety procedures when cleaning the equipment that he’d be in big trouble. The word would get around that he was a snitch.

So, Harry said nothing. And a week later his buddy Al lost a finger in the equipment’s gears.

What’s wrong with this picture?

What first comes to mind is the obvious. Because Harry didn’t act decisively to correct Al’s dangerous behavior, Al has lost a finger.

But that’s far from being the heart of the matter.

Harry’s thinking processes were clouded by beliefs emanating from the cult of the cowboy. And what are they? They’re beliefs, pervasive in our society and, therefore, our society’s workplaces, that teach us that respecting individuality even in its deviant forms trumps respecting the group and the group’s norms.

So how does this mindset impact workplaces?

What happened to Al is one obvious and tragic example. It’s also seen in employees rebelling against following standardized work processes. “I don’t want to do it that way. I’ve got my own methods.” It’s seen in employees not sharing ideas about ways to improve productivity. “I just do my job.” It’s seen in employees who don’t take care of their employer’s equipment. As one worker said to me after I observed him breaking a tool. “Why should it make any difference to me, it’s not my tool.

My is the pet word of the cult of the cowboy. And cowboys are enemies of continuous improvement. They are barriers to the building of the type of championship teams needed to win in today’s highly competitive 21st Century marketplace.

In one of his best TED talks, Atul Gawande M.D., author of one of the most important books about Lean thinking and work processes, “The Checklist Manifesto,” tells a story about work he headed up for the World Health Organization intended to reduce the frequency of death in surgery. Working with Boeing’s Lead Safety Engineer, Dr. Gawande’s team developed a nineteen-item checklist for surgeons to use so that critical steps in the surgical process wouldn’t be overlooked. They tested it in eight hospitals across the world. The impact of the checklist was dramatic. A 47% decrease in death in surgery and a 35% decrease in complication rates.

Armed with these dramatic results, Dr. Gawande shared his team’s checklist with surgeons. The result? It was very slow to spread. In explaining this, Dr. Gawande observed that the use of a checklist required different values than those of surgeons he described as being “cowboys.” It required values like humility, discipline, and teamwork. He noted that many of us are raised to believe that autonomy should be our highest value.

Dr. Gawande’s reaction to the dismal reception his checklist got? “Far too many surgeons are cowboys. We need a lot more pit crew members.

Surgeons who are “cowboys” say things like “I’ve got my own methods. I don’t need your checklist.

Again, it’s my, my, my.

Moving from the surgical suite to the floor of a factory or to an office setting, the same observation could be made. There are far too many cowboys at work in our factories and offices. We need a lot more pit crew members. We need a lot more people who think “we” rather than “me.”

Transitioning from being a “me” thinker to a “we” thinker isn’t easy. Lessons we learned on the playground still impact our decision making, “Don’t snitch on me. I’m doing my thing.” Going fast-forward from the playground to the factory floor, this thinking translates into “What Al’s doing is dangerous, but I’m not going to report him. He’s just doing his thing.

“Cowboys” may seem to enjoy the illusory freedom that their exaggerated individuality provides them. In fact, they don’t.

Being a cowboy is very lonely. When Harry sees Al’s hand with the missing finger, a lot of the joy of “doing your own thing” disappears.

So, what’s the connection between “don’t be a snitch” thinking and “cowboy” thinking? Don’t be a snitch thinking is the thinking of individuals who feel no strong affinity for the group. It’s the thinking of individuals who see themselves as solo operators, who, because this type of “me” thinking staves off identification with the group, explicitly reject the norms of the group. At the factory floor level, they’re employees who rebel against attempts to impose standardized processes on the work they do. They’re employees who don’t use the checklists they’re supposed to use or, if they do, fill them out fraudulently, making a sham of their use. And if an employee like Harry, for example, “snitches” on Al by reporting that he didn’t do lockout-tagout when he serviced the equipment, Al would see this as an intrusion of group norms, threatening his “cowboy” status. “Snitching” is, in fact, an assault on “me” thinking. It’s imposing “we” thinking (the group’s norms) on a cowboy.

So how can “cowboys,” over time, become “pit crew members,” individuals who understand that “snitching” is behavior that helps the group and, therefore, helps the individuals who make up the group.

Lean values and thinking processes help cowboys become pit crew members. How does this happen? It happens, when an organization nurtures a work environment in which respect, candor, and trust are the organization’s defining characteristics. As employees’ experience being respected, being trusted, and where candor (truth-telling) is highly valued, they will gradually, over time, shift from thinking “me” to thinking “we.”

And when this happens, “snitching” will be highly valued, being seen as evidence of the degree to which individuals value the wellbeing of the group.

In this world “Snitches” get accolades, not stitches.

St. Louis Community College’s Workforce Solutions Group has a wide variety of training and coaching resources that shift “me” thinking to “we” thinking. And when this happens your workforce will become an energized, unified force driving continuous improvement. To learn more about these resources contact George Friesen at 314-303-0612 or Eric Whitehead at 314-539-5022 to schedule a time to talk. We believe it will be 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.

You must be logged in to post a comment Login