Kevin’s post, "Outsourcing Communication Affects Quality" laid bare the folly expecting quality results from a value stream made up of people scattered all over the map, whose sole credentials for being part of the team is their willingness to sell their time cheap. When you drill down to the core of this matter, you will find rampant misconceptions about the role of people in lean manufacturing.
I don’t know what is more incredible: The fact that there are hundreds of consulting firms out there that specialize in teaching managers how to treat employees with common courtesy, or the fact that there are plenty of clients who have concluded that they need these consultants. Treating people with respect and listening to what they have to say about their jobs is not a cornerstone of lean manufacturing. It is a cornerstone of living in a civilized society. Any manager seriously in need of professional guidance in developing respect for people can find far more qualified consultants, willing to work for free, at just about any street corner in the churches, synagogues and mosques that throw open their doors every weekend.
Mister Rogers is not a role model for lean manufacturing management. Shigeo Shingo, Taichi Ohno and the early Ford management team would have eaten him alive. The well known American icon with principles most like theirs is Bobby Knight (without the propensity for chair throwing, of course). To observe the critical role people play in lean manufacturing, watch one of Knight’s basketball teams in action near the end of a tight game.
The last few minutes of a close basketball game are usually wild and chaotic, as the urgency of time running out causes the players to go after each other at a frenetic pace and everyone is overcharged with adrenalin. Most coaches hoard their time outs to use during this time in order to stop play as often as possible to get control of their players and the game, and to maintain control of events. Not Bobby Knight, however.
When he is coaching one of his great teams, he prefers to have the players make decisions and improvise on their own. He recruits players for their mental ability as much as for their physical skills and trains them relentlessly. He then uses the fact that his players understand the game better than the other guys and are capable of making superior decisions in the midst of the dynamic environment of the end of a close game. The mental capability of his players is a potent competitive weapon.
That is precisely how Taichi Ohno defined the critical nature of production people in lean manufacturing. Certainly people’s ideas and problem solving input are valued. That is nothing more than common sense. But where people really add value in manufacturing is when they can make the right ad hoc decisions in the midst of a rapidly changing shop floor.
Of course Bobby Knight’s basketball teams have a game plan; and of course lean factories operate to detailed plans and comprehensive standards. The prudent manager in either situation, however, knows that there are too many variables to control and that inevitably, things will go wrong. Ohno defined production people as the ‘reflex nerve’ of the factory. He marveled at the way the human body reacted immediately and without thinking to changes in the environment. He pointed out that we would all be dead if we had to stop and think every time before blood rushed to a part of the body that needed it, or we jumped back from a dangerous condition. In like manner, manufacturing fails if work has to stop and a management expert has to be called in every time something unexpected happens on the factory floor.
Traditionally managed factories operate much like the other basketball coaches – needing a time out whenever something unexpected happens in order to dictate detailed instructions about what to do next. lean factories maintain the frantic pace, allowing well trained, bright production people to continually make all of the little corrections needed to get back on track when unexpected results crop up.
Like Bobby Knight, no one described Taichi Ohno as a warm or particularly affable man. Shigeo Shingo never bought into the notion that there is no such thing as a stupid question. When asked a stupid question, he let the asker know what he thought. The difference between these men and many modern American managers was that they drew no artificial distinctions between people paid by the hour and people paid by the month. If Shingo heard a good idea or he heard a stupid question, he reacted in the same blunt, straightforward manner, regardless of whether the source was a production worker or an executive. The point is that lean manufacturing is not about being paternalistic or ‘nice’ to people in a condescending manner. All management, lean or otherwise, is about being direct and operating by the golden rule.
Shingo, Knight and Ohno said what they meant and meant what they said; they traeted everyone the same; they were experts in the fundamentals of their professions; they did not suffer fools gladly; and they had complete faith in the training they imparted to the people in their organizations. They define the essence of managing people in a lean environment.
Quality Circles are nothing more than inviting production people to meetings previously attended only by management people – then expecting the same input from them and showing the same courtesy to them. It is a pretty sad indictment of all of us that we need to read books and call in consultants in order to learn how to do this. It is equally sad that we have reached a point that we feel the need to count and keep track of the number of ideas hourly folks submit. Can any of us imagine making the Vice President of Anything feel special by telling him, "We’re real proud of you, Joe. You had eight ideas last month and four of them were worth acting on"?
Treating people with respect is not the key to lean. It is the basic cost of entry that must be paid before you are even allowed to start working on how to empower and energize people to become part of the lean effort.