Voices from the Front Line

By on October 31, 2018
Voices from the Front-Line

Here’s how I gauge the value of the work our group does in support of a manufacturer’s Lean transformation. What do line workers say about the impact of what’s happening on their work and on their lives? Frankly, I view their comments as being more important than the results most companies are focused on: gains in productivity, product quality, and profitability.

Obviously, all manufacturers need to be focused on becoming more productive, with higher product quality, both driving increases in profitability. That said the forces that are going to drive these benefits over time are in the hearts and minds of all employees, especially front-line workers. Unless significant changes happen in the way line workers think and feel about their work and their company, gains made through process improvements will not be sustainable.

About fifteen years ago, following a meeting of a 5S team in a plant manufacturing seats for the automotive industry, a veteran employee by the name of Jim came up to me and, with tears in his eyes, said that in the last twenty-five years the only time anyone in the plant had asked him what he thought about anything was in these meetings. I told him that the team and I really appreciated his contributions, that he had a lot to offer as we worked to improve the plant’s work processes. After he left, I thought to myself, what a tragedy this gentleman has just described. Twenty-five years of work in a de-humanizing workplace, the management of which had almost completely wasted the most valuable contribution he could make: his thoughts on how to improve work processes.

Here are some voices from the front-line. As you read them, notice especially what they convey about the relationship between smooth work flow and employee happiness.

“Cleanliness and organization of areas reduced the amount of frustration people had in finding things…the facility was made audit ready, at any time.”
– Rick

“We can find anything we need very quickly without having to search for it. It’s really improved our work ethic.”
– Brittany

“We’ve found it a lot easier to find stuff. People are a lot happier. Everything flows better. People are happier because their job is easier, and it makes them feel good about themselves. They can go home knowing that they did a good job. It’s less stressful.”
– Alex

“5S has made employees happier because they get to give their input and make changes that have benefitted them.”
– Jackie

“There’s a lot more organization in our department. People can get to stuff a lot easier. Overall their attitudes are a lot better. We work better together when things are organized. There’s less clutter which means there are fewer arguments.”
– Daniel

“Everything is smoother around here. It’s awesome.”
– Jacob

Clearly, for these line workers, clean, well-organized work areas equate to happier workers and, to state the obvious, happier workers are more engaged workers and more energized drivers of continuous improvement.

Smooth flow makes for happier workers. You and I know this from hearing voices of the sort that I’ve just quoted. Additionally, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, has done research that confirms the relationship between flow and happiness. He tells us, “People are happiest when they are in a state of flow—a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand. The flow state is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation where the person is fully immersed in what they are doing during which temporal concerns (time, food, ego, self) are typically ignored.”

And that’s exactly what Jacob, Daniel, Alex, Brittany, and others have told me.

So, what should this information lead us to do? For starters, three things.

First, convey to all employees what Toyota tells its employees, “We pay you to do two things, to work and to think, and of the two, thinking is the most important.

Second, use the 5S System to create leaner, cleaner, and more organized work spaces and use line workers to drive the application of 5S, creating smoother work flow.

Third, implement a transparent idea collection process that makes it easy for employees to contribute their ideas on how to improve work processes and to see how these ideas are being acted upon. The Idea Board is an ideal tool to use for this purpose. Watch this short video containing comments from line workers and managers on the impact of the Idea Board.

I’ll never forget what Jim told me about spending twenty-five years in a workplace that didn’t seem to care at all about what he thought. I know you’ll agree with me that something like this is tragic. And I believe you’ll also agree that it’s all too common. And it’s completely avoidable.

When employees feel like those I’ve just quoted, what a difference it makes. More engaged employees. Better employee retention. Improved product quality. Increased productivity. People really are happiest when they’re in a state of flow.

St. Louis Community College’s Corporate Services Group has a wide variety of resources that can help create very productive work environments, smooth work flow, and engaged employees. To learn more about these resources just call me, George Friesen, at 314-303-0612 or Eric Whitehead at 314-539-5022.

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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