All of us have problem-solving experiences to reflect on and learn from. And what better time to draw out that learning than now, when we as a society are tackling massive problems like the coronavirus pandemic and racism. In my case, I keep thinking about one experience when I failed.
The setting was a manufacturing plant. I was there on a learning assignment, immersing in the shop floor for several weeks. For my personal development, I had been sent to the factory to close an experiential gap. At that point, my experience with lean thinking and practice (LT&P) was limited to service environments. There, customers arrive whenever, behave however, and order whatever they choose, more or less. The specifics are unpredictable. Nevertheless, I had learned to develop and use “repeatable routines” for key jobs. What I had never done, however, was develop standardized work complete with takt time, a best-known sequence of work elements, and standard work-in-process. Here, I would have that opportunity.
The context gave me several advantages. Most beneficially, the factory was facing an existential crisis. Without cost and, subsequently, price reductions, its products couldn’t compete. Going out of business was a real possibility, providing motivation to those aware of the risk. Another benefit I had was being given a clear target linked directly to the business need. In other words, a meaningful problem had been well defined for me.
Specifically, I was tasked with reducing the number of operators needed for a given scope of work from five to four. (Not to worry, no one would lose their employment. Instead, backfilling vacated jobs would become unnecessary. Overall productivity would improve over time.) One of the five workstations stood on its own, apart from the line, away from the flow. If I could bring it online, so to speak, waste would be eliminated, and line rebalancing would be enabled — a helpful condition for system kaizen.
I spent hours — days actually — and used various tools to study and improve the work: process timing sheets, standardized work charts, operator balance charts, etc. I summarized my findings on an A3. I carried around this portfolio of documents, eagerly sharing what I had learned with area managers, members of the company’s lean team, and my coach. All was well. Except.
Whenever she saw me, she stood up, stepped back from her assembly work, and shouted, “He’s back again!” Upon hearing this, the union steward, working six stations down the line, had to leave his work and respond to her call. In turn, a team leader needed to temporarily take over the union steward’s job. Knowing I was the cause of the disruption, I’d put away my stopwatch and notebook, and walk to a nearby office. Inside I could disappear. It was an oasis … for me, at least, and others serving the purpose of “management.”
What I didn’t know was how I was violating the contract with the labor union. Nor did I appreciate the fraught history of labor relations within the company. Management, or in my case, one of its representatives, was not allowed to determine the facts of a job, such as its cycle time, without the involvement and verification of a union member. In the past, frontline workers had felt they had been asked to do more work than was possible due to faulty data collection. For example, a manager may use the lowest possible cycle time, which was impossible to achieve repeatedly.
What I should have known, or recognized at least, was how critical it was for me to forge a relationship with her. While I had received an assignment from management, which included a clear problem to solve, and was happily collecting the relevant facts, she was filling with anxiety about what she’d be asked or, more accurately, told to change. And again, her experience led her to believe that when someone who looked like me came around, she would be asked to do more. Her work would get harder. So, she’d devised a way to prevent that outcome — cause a scene whenever I came by.
The thing is, I didn’t have that background. I believed the changes I’d bring about would make her work easier. LT&P had always helped me do that, including when I was a frontline worker. Why wouldn’t that happen now? But who was I? Like often happens when coming from a position of relative power, or dare I say privilege, I neglected to think deeply about and discover her perspective. She didn’t know me. I was just someone who represented management and, therefore, was not to be trusted. My “facts” were illegitimate. History made this her truth.
As far as I know, nothing has changed. Five operators are still needed. One of whom is working on an island, away from the team. I regret not putting away my notebook and stopwatch, meeting with her and the other four workers, getting to know them a bit, and discovering with them immediate ways to make their work easier. Then I would have engaged them in the problem-solving process, and they might have been open to my ideas too. Or at least willing to tolerate my presence.
Back to today. To overcome the existential crises facing society, I believe we need purposeful relationship-building through more dialogue. It is easy to dismiss others as “not getting it” or just being resistant to change. I know I murmured that to myself when I was escaping that operator and hiding away in the nearby office. What’s hard is to listen closely, seeking to truly understand others’ perspectives. How else can we solve these terrible problems?
Josh Howell, president
Lean Enterprise Institute
P.S. To learn more about the social aspects of the A3 process, join us at any or all of these opportunities:
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