And Why Should I Care?

By on January 29, 2019
And Why Should I Care?

I watched an employee at one of my clients throw this hand towel on the floor of the restroom even though a waste can was right in front of him. I was tempted to ask him why he did it. I didn’t. I had also watched him at work and knew the answer to my question. He did it because this was a place to which he had absolutely no emotional attachment. So why should he care if the restroom was messy? And why should he care if he did quality work? And why should he get involved in improving work processes? This place was, for him, a place of the other.

I was walking through a production area when I heard a loud noise accompanied by some cursing and walked over to ask what was happening. I asked a worker in the area, “What happened?” He gave me an annoyed look and said, “The damn tool broke.” I replied, “That’s too bad.” He immediately came back with “I don’t care. Why should I, it’s the company’s tool, not mine. It’s their problem.

It’s the company’s tool, not mine. It’s their problem.

I was meeting with a group of employees in an auto plant in Detroit, introducing a program targeted at getting them highly motivated to identify ways of improving product quality and productivity. As I reviewed the structure of the program, one of the workers said, “Why should I give a damn about this company? They don’t care about me.

They don’t care about me. Why should I care about them?

I was making a presentation to a group of supervisors, describing a new method their company would be using to stimulate employees to contribute ideas about ways to improve work spaces and work processes. Following my presentation, a supervisor walked up to me and said, “If the company wants to hear some of my ideas on how to improve production, they’ll need to pay me for them first.

They’ll get no ideas from me unless they pay me first.

I’m certain many of us have had experiences like these; times when we’ve heard the voices of alienation, of estrangement. We’ve probably had feelings like these ourselves. We’ve been in groups that we didn’t feel part of in any meaningful way. And we can remember how this feeling impacted our performance.

This “them/they” thinking is pervasive in far too many companies and the damage it inflicts on corporate productivity and profitability is considerable. It’s also pervasive in our society and the damage it inflicts on the viability of life in many of our neighborhoods is considerable.

Many of us have also experienced the joy and exhilaration that come from being a member of a group that we always referred to as “we” and “us.” It was a group whose members respected each other and trusted each other. It was a group we felt attached to in a very basic way.

And when a group, or a society, is cohesive, filled with individuals who care about each other, who trust and respect each other, beautiful things happen.

I experienced this in Hong Kong in 1986 when I was doing training for United Airlines. I had an afternoon off and was walking through the city carrying a camera when a fellow walked up to me and asked, “Would you like for me to take a picture of you with your camera?” I hesitated in responding to his question. He said, “You don’t need to worry about me trying to steal your camera, you’re not in New York.” I smiled wryly, gave him my camera and said, “Yes, that’d be great if you’d take some photos.” After taking several shots he gave the camera back to me and said, “You should know that you could leave your camera bag in front of this shop and come back hours later and it would still be there.

I’ve thought about this experience many times and I’ve asked myself, what does it take to create a society with a sense of cohesiveness so strong that it would drive the kind of behavior I’ve just described. Your camera bag would still be there. And what does it take to create a society in which the subways are immaculate as they were in Hong Kong? A place where I saw no dirty restrooms?

When respect and trust for each member of the group exist, beautiful things happen.

I had an experience like this when doing team-building training at NUMMI in Fremont, California. NUMMI was a joint venture that General Motors entered into with Toyota for the purpose of getting to know the Toyota Production System, later referred to as Lean Manufacturing. And what an experience it was! Participants in the session I facilitated were very actively engaged in the discussions we were having. It was obvious that they were proud to be part of the NUMMI family, that they felt committed to NUMMI and to each other. Nothing was said that was even remotely like the “Why should I give a damn about this company? They don’t care about me.” I had heard in the auto plant in Detroit.

I had an experience like this at a sheltered workshop where I’ve done volunteer consulting on improving the productivity of their various work areas. I was standing at the end of a line of workers who were repackaging beer from cases to season-themed six packs. During a short pause in work, an employee at the end of the line said to me, “George, do you know why I want to do a good job?” He continued, “I want to do a good job because I want my company to succeed.

I want my company to succeed.

I had an experience like this in consulting work I did for a large distributor of construction equipment. Their employees consistently referred to the company as “us.” They wore their uniforms proudly, they kept their work areas very clean and orderly. They went the extra mile with no questions asked to better serve their customers. And their owner’s behavior said loud and clear in many ways that he liked and trusted his employees. For example, every six months he gave a detailed report on the company’s financial performance to all employees. There was no treating the company’s financials like a state secret with the distrust this type of behavior, quite predictably, creates.

I want my company to succeed. No “they” or “them.” It’s “my” company. The owner likes us and trusts us.

I’ve had experiences like these in a variety of settings, as I suspect all of us have. We’ve been members of sports teams where everyone was committed to the success of the team more than their personal success. We’ve worked for companies where almost everybody was super proud to be a member of the team and would do whatever it takes to make sure the team succeeded. We’ve been a member of social groups and/or religious groups, where it was always “we” and never “they.”

So, what is it that drives the kind of thinking that would never result in a person saying, “And why should I care?” The kind of thinking that would never cause a person to throw a paper towel on the floor of a restroom without caring when there’s a waste can in full view. The kind of thinking that would never result in a person saying “Why should I care if this tool broke? It’s the company’s, not mine.

Here’s what my experience has taught me. Healthy, cohesive groups are characterized by the following:

  • Adherence to a shared goal that all members of the group have had a role in defining and to which they are committed.
  • Open communication among all levels of employees.
  • A continuing focus on making respect, trust, and candor the defining characteristics of the group.
  • Providing opportunities for all members of the group to learn, to continually expand their horizons of social awareness and their job proficiencies.

Any organization can become this type of healthy group. All it takes is commitment and tenacity, driven by an awareness that “Why should I care?” thinking is both sad on an individual level as well as destructive at a group level. It’s also a basic violation of what the human condition is intended to be. John Donne, 17th Century English poet and priest, said it most eloquently, “No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, part of the main.

No person is an island. Being “part of the main” is the natural human condition. Thinking of oneself as “an island” and, as a result, saying “they” when talking about one’s fellow workers is an aberration and a very destructive one. And it doesn’t have to be that way.

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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