Quit Complaining!

By on June 6, 2018
Quit Complaining!

“We’re getting too many complaints in our suggestion box, I’m taking it down.” – An over-stressed manager

I’m betting that at some time in your career, you’ve heard a variant of this comment. When you heard it do you recall what you thought? Were you unaffected by it, thinking of it as just background noise generated by an obviously overstressed manager? Or did you think to yourself when you heard it, “You’ll never hear me making a comment about our workplace.” Or, to directly quote an employee at one of my clients, did you think something like this, “I’ll never make a suggestion in this place. Doing so is the same as putting a target on your back.

And possibly, you said something like our over-stressed manager yourself. I believe I have. Do you recall what you felt when you said it?

My hunch is that you were feeling very stressed. You were close to being overwhelmed by the demands of the moment. When your Joe came up and said to you “We need to get a faster copier,” his comment was the last straw. You may have responded to your Joe with something like, “Get back to work and don’t worry about the copier.

Joe did get back to work. However, he didn’t quit being annoyed by the slow copier. He also didn’t forget what he was told when he said a faster copier was needed. What type of an impact did this comment have on Joe’s thinking? Here’s what Joe said to himself, after he heard it, “To hell with this place, I’m going to keep my head down, do my work, and keep quiet.”

And when this happened it was a very big deal. Why?

First, Joe’s degree of engagement with the work he was doing was markedly decreased. He was on his way to joining the ranks of millions of disengaged American workers who show up for work, go through the motions, but never use their knowledge and creativity to improve the way their work is done. And the impact of employee disengagement? Stagnant work processes. A company that becomes less competitive. A company whose future is problematic.

Second, when Joe quits making suggestions (aka “complaints”) about ways to improve work processes, the ability of his manager to effectively lead is compromised as is the ability of the leadership group. In any company, the employees who have the best ideas about how to improve work processes are the ones who do the work. Their voices are stifled at great risk to the company.

Considering the great cost to the company of “complaint stifling” behavior, why does it occur so often?

There are a variety of reasons for this very destructive behavior.

Managers personalize “complaints.” When Joe said, “We need a faster copier,” what his manager heard was, “This guy’s attacking me.” Given this mindset, saying, “Get back to work and don’t worry about the copier” was a predictable response. Only problem was that Joe wasn’t saying what his manager heard.

Managers believe that workers are hired to work, and managers are hired to think. I’ll never forget hearing a line worker express the impact of this nonsensical belief. I was observing her work and asked her, “Do you have any ideas on how to make your area work better for you?” She responded, “That’s a question you should ask my supervisor. He would know how to answer it better than I would.” I knew her supervisor and was sure what she said reflected what he had taught her. Several weeks earlier, when I had asked him why so few suggestions on how to improve work processes were coming from his work group, he responded, “It’s my job to come up with suggestions, not my line workers.” He actually viewed thinking workers as threats to his position as a supervisor.

Members of the company’s leadership team don’t spend time talking with workers in their work areas. They don’t spend time asking line workers for their ideas on how to improve work processes. If they have questions about improving work processes, they talk with managers or, perhaps, front-line supervisors. Observing these types of behavior on the part of the leadership group, managers and supervisors conclude that line worker ideas aren’t really very important.

Rigid, hierarchical systems build barriers between all levels of a company. And the damages done are significant. Leaders learn that they can operate effectively without the benefit of line worker thinking. They can’t. Managers and Supervisors learn that their jobs all about making sure that all the wheels of production turn smoothly. They aren’t. And line workers learn that their job is to work and not to think. It isn’t.

So, what’s a road out of this inefficient jungle? It’s one that goes straight to where products are being made or services delivered. A term used to describe this work is value-added. Value-added work is the heart-beat of any organization. It’s the work upon which the very survival of the organization depends. Everything else, while important, is peripheral. A term used to describe this type of work is incidental.

Here are some powerful first steps that a company’s leadership team can take.

First, they need to accept the fact that if they aren’t very familiar with what’s happening on the company’s front-line, they can’t be effective leaders. They need to go to where value-added work is happening. And they need to go there regularly.

Second, they need to acknowledge that front-line employees are their organization’s best source of ideas on how to eliminate waste in work processes and, as a result, improve productivity. Given this fact, when they’re on the line they need to interact with these employees with brief, tightly-focused discussions about how to improve work processes. And, in having these discussions, they need to listen more than talk. They’re on the line to learn from line workers, not to prove what they know.

Third, they need to act upon what they learn from line workers. And they need to make sure that line workers understand that their ideas are being listened to and acted upon.

Finally, they need to make sure that all employees understand that complaints are welcomed. In fact, they’re encouraged. And overtime, the word “complaint” needs to be replaced with a word that’s a more accurate description of the behavior that had been described as a “complaint.” That word is suggestion.

When all of this happens, Joe’s going to raise his head, look around, and become actively engaged in thinking about ways to improve the work he does. He’ll never hear “Get back to work and don’t worry about the copier” again.

Is the process I’ve described simple? Yes. Is it easy? Not necessarily. But through the application of will power, driven by a firm commitment to make full use of the brain power of all employees, they can do it. When they do, will it make a difference? Absolutely. They’ll be participating in the creation of the kind of championship team needed to be winners in their marketplace. They’ll feel the same exhilaration as that experienced by their line workers when this happens.

St. Louis Community College’s Workforce Solutions Group has a wide variety of training and coaching resources that you can put to work now in support of the kind of transformation I’ve described. To learn more about these resources call George Friesen (314-303-0612) or Eric Whitehead (314-539-5022) and let’s arrange a time to meet. We look forward to it.

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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