Lean and the Joy of Work

By on September 23, 2020
Lean and the Joy of Work

Work, Joy, Really?

We’ve all experienced joy. When I was young, I experienced it when opening a Christmas present and finding out that Santa had brought me exactly what I was wishing for. When I got older, I recall the joy of catching my first fish and hearing my father say, “What a good fisherman you are!

And I’m certain, reader, that you can also remember times when you experienced great joy. We all know what joy feels like. It’s a feeling of exuberance, a feeling that brings the object of our joy into sharp focus. It’s a feeling that detaches us from extraneous worries, from fears, from doubts.

Yet this absolutely delightful thing called joy is so often foreign to our workplaces. I’ve been in far too many organizations where workers are angry, fearful, unhappy, drained of energy. You can see it in their eyes, the way they move, the things they say.

I saw it and heard it an automotive factory in Detroit where I was doing training in the mid-80s. In the middle of one of my training sessions, a worker walked toward me and said in a very loud voice:

Tell you what, George, you and your company can take this training and shove it. This place doesn’t give a damn about us and that’s the way we feel about them.

And with that he walked out the door, slamming it behind him. Others in the class apologized for his behavior, adding, however, that what he had said about the company was true.

As I drove away from this factory, I thought about how sad this experience was, how sad it was that my fellow human beings spent the majority of their waking hours filled with anger, with fear, with regret.

And two months later I learned it didn’t have to be this way.

It was February of 1986 and I was at New United Motors Corporation in Fremont, CA. NUMMI was a joint venture of GM and Toyota that GM entered into to learn about the Toyota Production System. By 1986, as most of you know, Toyota was making major waves in the automotive industry. Their sales were booming and the cars they built were conspicuously better than the cars built in Detroit. The performance improvement company I worked for had a contract to deliver team-building training at NUMMI. I designed the training and headed up the team that delivered it.

What an eye-opener this experience was.

Participants in our classes were alert and very responsive. And they had smiles on their faces. As they spoke about their work it was obvious that doing it brought them joy. This was a workplace that really cared about its workers. Looking around, it was easy to see the impact of egalitarian leadership. There were no private offices, no reserved parking, and members of management all wore the same clothes as line workers. The plant was immaculate and the cars they built routinely got high JD Powers quality ratings.

This was a work environment in which respect, trust, and candor impacted all interactions between employees. This was a workplace filled with joy.

Respect. Trust. Candor. I’ve seen their impact in other workplaces.

Another plant I worked in made seats for the automotive industry. It was the second meeting of our 5S team when I asked Charlie, a worker who had been silent, “Charlie, you know a lot about the problem we’re discussing. What do you think we should do?” Haltingly, Charlie shared some potential fixes for the problem. One of his ideas solved the problem. After the meeting, Charlie came up and with tears running down his face, told me, “This is the first time in my twenty-five years of working here that anyone ever asked me what I thought about anything.

We discussed what had happened during the meeting and Charlie agreed that he had learned something very important about himself. I asked him if he’d share what he had learned at our next meeting. He replied, “Sure, I’d be glad to.

When Charlie shared what he had learned with his teammates, one of them said, “You know, Charlie, we respect you and want to know what you think about production problems.” Charlie replied, “I never knew it.” And then he smiled, and then he laughed. And then he said, “I’ve just learned something that’s going to make working in this plant a lot more fun. I’m going to enjoy work a lot more than I have in the past.

Charlie had just experienced joy, the kind of joy that comes from hearing that others respect one’s ideas. Charlie’s teammates also learned a lot about the power of respect. And what they learned would transform them into carriers of the seeds of joy throughout the plant.

Pete had worked for thirty years for this large tire wholesaler. Whenever I saw Pete, he seemed to be happy. When he thought no one was looking, he’d be singing to himself. When asked a question, he always responded with a smile. What drove the obvious joy that he felt in doing his work?

I observed that Sam, the owner of the company, was in the warehouse regularly talking with Pete. Sam and Pete often talked about ways to improve the work Pete was doing. What struck me most about their interactions was the great respect Sam showed for Pete’s thinking. He and Pete argued about how to best do things. Their arguments had the flavor of discussions between two old friends who admired and respected each other. And some of their arguments were quite heated. There were no “winners” and “losers” after the discussions ended. Pete and Sam would reach consensus that one person’s idea was the best one. Sometimes it was Sam’s, more commonly it was Pete’s.

Pete obviously loved his work. Doing it brought him great joy. Sam and Pete could be completely candid with each other because they respected and trusted each other.

Maryann was a new worker in the marketing department of a company that operates barges on inland rivers. It was a company that consistently showed respect for employee suggestions about ways to improve work processes. Maryann’s supervisor, Sylvia, listened to her employee’s ideas. Veteran employees in Sylvia’s department had a relationship with her not unlike the relationship Sam had with Pete. But for Maryann it was a work environment quite unlike those in which she had worked in the past. Maryann had been wondering about the in-port reconsignment fees the company was charging. She believed they could be increased without impacting sales. With some trepidation she shared her thoughts with Sylvia. Sylvia agreed with her analysis and took her recommendation to senior leadership. They accepted Maryann’s recommendation. Its impact was over $200,000 in additional earnings per year.

And Maryann experienced great joy, knowing that her idea had had such an impact on earnings. She realized that she was working for a company in which employees trusted and respected each other. And because of this, they could share their thoughts without fear of being ridiculed or ignored. Candor ruled.

So, what’s to be learned from my experience at NUMMI and the experiences of Charlie, Pete, and Maryann?

Here, I believe, are the most important ones:

  • People really can experience great joy in their workplaces and when they do it has an incredibly powerful impact on employee morale, on productivity, and on profitability.
  • Creating a joy-filled work environment is simple but it is not easy. It requires a commitment to staying the course. Transitioning from a command and control work environment, devoid of joy, to an egalitarian one like I experienced at NUMMI is a slow process. It happens one Charlie, Pete, and Maryann at a time.
  • To drive this transition, an organization’s leadership team often has to directly confront, and accept, the fact that their thinking about work and workers has to change. They need to ask themselves these types of questions:
    – Do all our employees know that we highly value the work they do?
    – Do all our employees believe that we respect their intelligence and creativity?
    – Do all our employees believe that we are committed to building a good future for them?
    – Are respect, candor, and trust the defining characteristics of our company?
  • Finally, as your Charlie’s, Pete’s, and Maryann’s experience joy in their work, their energy, their happiness, their joy will permeate your organization and your workplace will gradually, one person at a time, be cleansed of those impurities that limit your employees ability to experience the fullness of their capabilities.

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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