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Bruce Hamilton

Lean

Field of Daisies

Engaged employees need an engaging system

Published: Monday, September 9, 2019 - 12:02

A daisy rising from my brick walkway reminded me this morning, that even in the worst environment, there is a chance for growth. But this kind of individual heroism does not portend success for lean transformation. As an organization with the slogan “Everybody Everyday,” GBMP places high value on total employee involvement as an essential piece of continuous improvement.

I have a long-standing practice of asking managers, “What percent of your employees come to work every day, excited about a potential solution to a problem or an idea for improvement?”

After 20 years in lean consulting, the answers I receive to that question have not changed much. Here are a few:
• “We had a good run for a few months when maybe a third of our workforce was engaged, but we’re probably at about 5 percent now.”
• “The only serious work on improvement or problem solving comes from our dedicated kaizen team.”
• One company owner, call him John Smith, actually told me during a sales call, “Our employees are morons, so that wouldn’t work here,” a comment sufficiently offensive that I politely excused myself from the meeting: “If that’s how you feel, Mr. Smith, then you’re right, lean is not an option for you.”

Fortunately, most responses to my question are kinder than Smith’s, but the percentage estimate for employee involvement is still almost always less than 25 percent. If less than one-fourth of employees are participating in problem solving or improvement, no wonder so many organizations report lukewarm outcomes from lean. You can debate the exact percentages for employee involvement, but all of the estimates and expectations are resignedly low.

What’s missing? Do we need better employees as Smith suggests? Or are employees like the daisy in my walkway? Even an awful environment will grow an occasional daisy. We call those few the “self-starters,” the “A-team,” persons who rise above every obstacle to achieve. And how do we reward them? We give more challenges to them until they are overwhelmed. That’s the predominant system.

So, how do some organizations break through to generate broad employee involvement? A manager from one Shingo Prize-winning factory related:
“When we first subscribed to the Shingo insight that systems drive behavior, we realized if employees were not engaged, then perhaps the means by which we encouraged involvement needed to be revised. That was a humbling eye-opener. For example, we discovered that our idea system was literally losing employee ideas in the evaluation process. Employees took this as rejection and just stopped submitting ideas. They felt disrespected.”

At a deeper level, the willingness of this factory’s managers to question the systems that they themselves had created exemplified a couple of fundamental Shingo principles:
• Lead with humility
• Respect every individual  

According to the manager from that factory, “The biggest lesson for me personally was how much my behavior affected all of my employees. These principles have been guideposts for us to create an army of problem solvers.” Call it a field of daisies.

Are you relying on a few self-starters to create improvement, or are you developing an army of involved employees? Want to learn more about creating a culture of total employee involvement? We’ve got a twofer for you.

First, on Oct. 21–22, 2019, we’ll be at Legrand (Wiremold) in Hartford, Connecticut, teaching the Shingo Institute’s “Cultural Enablers” workshop that describes the fundamental principles of lead with humility and respect every individual. Read more about it here.

Then on Oct. 23–24, 2019, the 15th Annual Northeast LEAN Conference will be held at The Connecticut Convention Center, also in Hartford. The event features 50+ sessions to engage the hearts and minds of our most valuable asset, our employees. Learn about GBMP’s biggest event of the year here and register your team today. I sincerely hope to see you there.

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About The Author

Bruce Hamilton’s picture

Bruce Hamilton

Bruce Hamilton, president of the Greater Boston Manufacturing Partnership (GBMP), brings hands-on experience as a manager, teacher, and change agent. Prior to GBMP, Hamilton led efforts to transform United Electric Controls Co.’s production from a traditional batch factory to a single-piece-flow environment that has become an international showcase. Hamilton has spoken internationally on lean manufacturing, employee involvement, continuous improvement, and implementing change; and he has contributed to numerous texts ranging from visual control to variety reduction. Hamilton’s blog, Old Lean Dude, is an on-going reflection on lean philosophy and practices with an emphasis on keeping good jobs close to home.