Yesterday I learned of the passing of Norman Bodek and I have been reflecting on the impact this great man had on my life and career – and the lean and business world in general.
A quarter century ago I was a new operations manager trying to figure out how to improve a large medical device factory. I had been introduced to tools such as 5S, value stream mapping, kaizen, and quick changeover and those tools were helping, but something, some key component, seemed to be missing.
I don’t remember the name of the conference or the title of Norm’s presentation, but I remember the moment as if it was yesterday. I was a few rows back in the packed room and he began to talk about people. He described how the value of people was in their experience, creativity, and shared problem-solving – not in their pair of hands, yet traditional accounting methods determined cost and value in the exact opposite manner. He emphasized, emotionally and passionately, how respecting this value in people’s brains could jumpstart and expand the potential of improvement.
As he detailed, the concept of respect includes recognizing that value, providing compassion and empathy, but also being forceful in encouraging people to grow through new knowledge and especially learning from failure. He explained how “respect for people” is one of, if not the, most critical attribute of lean yet it is often forgotten in deference to just using the tools. Without growing and supporting people, tools will eventually fail and improvements will not be sustained.
The realization of the potential power of people forever changed how I approach operations management, leadership, and even my personal life.
I went back to my operation – now thinking of it as “our” operation – and began listening, learning, and teaching. I focused more on helping people improve both themselves and the operation than on the traditional metrics I was obligated to report on. Each crisis and each failure became an opportunity to analyze, to learn new knowledge, to generate new ideas and experiments, and thereby to improve.
Our staff began to spend far more time on the factory floor, and we began to have regular midnight staff meetings so we could respect and listen to the brains that operated the overnight shifts of the 24/7 operation. Improvement accelerated, and the metrics, both traditional quality and throughput as well as our new ones measuring ideas and experiments, recorded those positive changes.
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