Being in Control

By on March 12, 2019
Being in Control

Charlie Chaplin’s iconic film “Modern Times” features a worker whose job was designed around methods developed by Frederick Taylor, one of the first management consultants and a leader of the 20th century’s Efficiency Movement. Taylor’s techniques are described in his 1911 book, “The Principles of Scientific Management,” voted in 2001 by Fellows of the Academy of Management as the most influential management book of its century.

Charlie’s job consists of nothing more than tightening two bolts on objects as they move continuously past him on a conveyor belt. He has had no involvement in the way his work is done. He has never been asked if he has any ideas on how to make his work more productive. He has absolutely no control over what he does and how he does it. Charlie is a machine.

In fact, following Taylor’s perspective on the capabilities of line workers, it would have made absolutely no sense to give Charlie even the slightest degree of control over his work. As Taylor said in testimony before a congressional committee, “I can say without the slightest hesitation, that the science of handling pig-iron is so great that the man who is physically able to handle the pig-iron and is sufficiently phlegmatic and stupid to choose this for his occupation is rarely able to comprehend the science of handling pig-iron.”

Why would anyone pay any attention to the ideas of stupid workers?

Given that most workers are not intelligent enough, or too lazy, to be interested in improving work processes, what methods would need to be used to make work processes more productive? Taylor has an answer.

He writes, “It is only through enforced standardization of methods, enforced adoption of the best implements and working conditions, and enforced cooperation that this faster work can be assured. And the duty of enforcing the adoption of standards and enforcing this cooperation rests with management alone.”

I suspect many of you are now saying to yourselves, “We’ve moved far beyond Frederick Taylor. That’s ancient history. Today we know you can’t treat workers like they are machines.”

To which I reply, well, yes and no.

Yes, most of us know that workers should be engaged in thinking about the way they do their work. Most of us also know that there’s a direct correlation between the degree to which workers are involved in designing the way they do their work and the degree to which they’ve internalized a commitment to quality work. And virtually all of us would agree with Henry Ford’s observation that “Quality means doing the right thing when no one is looking.” Most of us realize that if a commitment to quality hasn’t been internalized by a workforce, their delivery of consistent quality work is highly problematic. No, Frederick Taylor, it’s not possible, in any meaningful way, to “enforce the adoption of standards.” Charlie in “Modern Times” certainly had no commitment to doing quality work; on the contrary, he probably spent his time hoping the conveyor belt would break.

No, while most of us would say we believe that workers should be respected and listened to, all too often our behaviors suggest otherwise. I’ll share just one anecdote to illustrate what I’m saying. I was standing in the cafeteria at one of my clients when a fellow named Jim came up to me and said, “George, do you remember how you’ve been telling us that the owner wants our ideas?” I replied, “yes, and he does.” He responded, “Well, if that’s the case, why did he tell me to shut up and that he didn’t pay me to think, he only paid me to work, when I told him I thought I knew how to fix some equipment that had broken down?” I didn’t have the courage to tell Jim I thought it was entirely possible that the owner wasn’t interested in his ideas, so I passed it off with, “He’s just having a bad day. He really does respect you.” And I’ve heard many variations of this story.

There is, however, room for optimism. Gradually, across a wide spectrum of our economy, methods of driving continuous improvement that are based on radically different perspectives of work and workers are taking hold. Lean Manufacturing and Operational Excellence both derive much of their power from the understanding that the most important employees in any organization are those who “touch the product,” those who do what Lean calls “value-added work.” Further, Lean and OpEx both recognize that the primary responsibility of all other employees, including all levels of upper management, is to support the work done by those who do value-added work.

Lean is egalitarian in its approach to organizational structure. Lean teaches that employees like Charlie must be treated with respect and given the opportunity to make full use of their intelligence and creativity. That’s why it has had such a remarkable impact on productivity, product/service delivery quality and profitability across a wide spectrum of industries worldwide.

Here’s what I’ve learned after over thirty years as a management consultant. It’s incredibly difficult for a lot of people in middle and upper management to transfer real decision-making authority to line workers. For many, it’s hard to believe that line workers could have better ideas on how to improve work processes than they do or that they could be trusted. And the fact is that workers who have been treated with disdain and not allowed to have any meaningful control over the work they do often aren’t trust-worthy. Some will do what I heard workers talk about doing in automotive factories in the 80s – intentionally damaging the vehicles they were building by doing welding pliers to the bottom of hoods, throwing nuts and bolts into doors, etc. They’ll do what workers have told me recently: that some of their fellow workers intentionally damage equipment so they can have downtime.

Just like Charlie in “Modern Times,” they’re quite pleased when their equipment breaks.

So, what’s the way forward? More and more, I’ve come to believe in the power of simplicity.

Simple really is powerful. A person in my LinkedIn network recently posted a story about Chick-fil-A, citing incredible increases in sales driven by simply training employees to always say “please” and “thank you” to customers. More than a few years ago, I was one of several designers of a program to boost sales for a national oil company. We rolled out our performance improvement package to 35,000 service stations. The program’s simple goal? Get every employee to always say “thank you” to all customers. The program’s impact: multi-million dollar increases in sales.

So, here are my simple recommendations:

  1. For a leadership group to overcome doubts about the ability of workers to craft very effective ways of improving work processes, every week go out to where the work happens and engage line workers in short, focused discussions aimed at getting their thoughts on how to improve work processes. Listen to your line workers. Let them know that the company needs their ideas and that you personally value their suggestions. And gradually your respect for their knowledge and creativity will increase. When this happens, they’ll know it. And what a difference it will make in the quality of their work, their engagement in their work and their commitment to continuous improvement.
  2. Consider having morning meetings like Paul Akers does at his company, FastCap, Inc. In these highly interactive and fast-paced sessions, employees talk about things they’ve done to improve work processes, share experiences from their personal lives, do some simple calisthenics, and get updates on production and on the company’s financial performance. Here’s a link to a video of one of Paul’s morning meetings. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nY8nec2wmCg
  3. Use that elegantly simple and powerful tool called the idea board as a way of giving workers an opportunity to post their observations about waste that needs to be eliminated as well as work processes that could be improved. Here’s a link to a short video about the idea board. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Leipa3Fae-w
  4. Every day give positive feedback to at least one of your employees. Thank them for the work they do. Tell them you really appreciate their contributions to the success of the company.
  5. Write personal notes to employees thanking them for the work they do and letting them know that the company really appreciates their contributions to its success. Mail these notes to the homes of employees.

Of course, there are many Lean tools that drive significant increases in employee engagement, productivity and product quality. 5S. Value-Stream Mapping. Pull Production. Poka-Yoke, SMED, Takt Time, Standardized Work, Kanban, Jidoka and others. But consistently doing these five simple things is a very good way to start a Lean transformation.

The suggestions I’ve shared with you can be potent forces in driving increases in employee engagement, productivity, and profitability in your organization.

It really is that simple. Charlie, just like you and I, wants to make full use of his abilities. He just needs to be given the opportunity. Charlie, just like you and I, wants to exert some measure of meaningful control over the work he does. Charlie, just like you and I, wants to be respected.

Nobody wants to be treated like a machine.

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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