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Bruce Hamilton


Lazy Lean Guy

Honest work needn’t be painful

Published: Monday, November 23, 2015 - 12:23

In 1987, shortly after I became a manufacturing manager, the shop foreman at the time warned me about a young assembler. “Watch out for Michael,” the foreman said. “He tends to bend the rules. You may need to talk to him.”

In fact, I did watch Michael, and it did appear that he approached his work a little differently—a bit like the violinist whose bow was out of sync with the rest of the section.

I asked him why he did his job in his particular way. 

“I’m just naturally lazy,” Michael responded impishly.

“What do you mean by that?” I asked, and the flood gates opened.

Michael explained how he organized his bench, tools, and material to make the job easier. “Look, I set up for each job so I’m not running around looking for things,” he said while pointing to an employee who was obviously searching for something. “Like her.”

I chuckled. “Is that what you mean by lazy?” I asked.

“That’s what they tell me,” Michael smiled, and then continued. “For example, I assemble this product in a different order than Bob,” alluding to another assembler to his left. “Bob follows the rules, but the rules leave out a couple of important steps. I still finish faster—and it’s easier!”

At that moment I realized what the foreman had meant by “bend the rules.”

“Have you mentioned this to your section leader?” I asked Michael.

“Ha!” Michael replied. “He told me, ‘We’ve always done it this way,’ and it would be best if I just followed the rules.”

During 1987 we were just beginning our lean journey, referring to it simply as “continuous improvement.” I was struck by the lack of either a system or an environment that would enable someone to make an improvement that wasn’t expressly focused on the external customer. Why not make the job easier?

I approached the foreman to let him know I’d met with Michael and observed his work. “It seems like he has some good ideas,” I said.

“Yeah, he’s always got a better idea, to make things easier for himself,” the foreman replied a bit resentfully.

“Isn’t that OK, too?” I asked.

“We’re in business to satisfy the customer, not ourselves,” the foreman responded stoically.

This was his paradigm, and I soon discovered that it was shared by many managers. “You’re coddling the employees,” a peer manager protested. “Do you think this is a garden club?”

Happily, thanks to few more “lazy” folks like Michael, “making the job easier” eventually became a legitimate concept in our factory. Some years later, I read a quote from Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System: “Why not make work easier and more interesting so that people do not have to sweat?”

Shigeo Shingo, in his book Non-Stock Production (Productivity Press, 2006), went further, stating that the order of improvement must be easier, better, faster, and then cheaper, in that order! He was adamant. Easier comes first.

Yet this concept of “easier” still eludes many lean thinkers today. Try Googling the phrase “better, faster, cheaper” and you’ll find 500 entries, including books by the same name, and numerous white papers from well-known consultants. But if the word “easier” is included in that Google search, the number of entries drops to fewer than five—and most of those are links to the theme of GBMP’s 2012 Northeast L.E.A.N. Conference.

Do managers think easy means lazy? Or do they think that honest work should be painful? I’m confounded. What do you think? Please share a thought.


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.


I'm lazy, too

Funny!!!  Back in 1995, we had a consultant in and when the consultant left, he shared with our team what he had learned from each one of us (a very powerful technique).  When the consultant got to me, he said that any time he needed something from me, not only did he get that but it was programmed so any time he needed it he could run it automatically.  After the consultant was done with me, the plant manager said, "No, he's just plain lazy!!!!!!!!!"  Of course he was joking but it was true.  Anything that needed to be done more than once was subject to an easier way.