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Bruce Hamilton

Six Sigma

Nullius in Verba

See for yourself

Published: Monday, November 3, 2014 - 13:32

There was a time when it was unfashionable for managers to associate with front-line employees. Alluding to an old adage, I used to joke that you could not even lead the horse (i.e., the manager) to water, let alone make him drink. Division of labor at that time was a great divide. In my early days as a manager, visiting with front-line employees was frowned upon as “fraternizing.” Managers stayed on the margins, managing from a safe distance.

Today, for some organizations, the divide seems to be narrowing. Thanks to the popularization of manager standard work and an emphasis on business culture (referred to 25 years ago as “fluff”), managers are now adding gemba walks to their busy schedules. So—that’s progress. We can now lead the horse to water, but can we make him drink?

“Why are we here?” I asked Lorie, the sales manager, as I accompanied her to a sales order department.

“According to my standard work, I’m to look for abnormalities,” she replied. 

“So, what do you see?” I asked.

Pointing to some numbers written in red ink on a huddle board at the edge of the department, Lorie noted, “I see that we’re taking too long to respond to quote requests.”

“What do you actually see here at the huddle board?” I asked.

Thinking for a second, Lorie responded, “A record of quote requests.”

"So how would you learn more about this apparently abnormal condition?” I inquired.

“I would talk to the supervisor,” Lorie said.

“OK,” I persisted, “would that be direct observation of the abnormality?”

“No,” Lorie, conceded. “It would be second-hand information as well.” Pausing for a moment, she then argued, “I can’t be out here all day long just watching for slow responses to quote requests.”

Without disputing the time commitment issue, I asked, “Do you have even 15 minutes to watch the process that produces the quotations?”

“Yes, I do,” said Lorie.

“Good, let’s see how many abnormalities we can observe in that length of time.” With that, we left the margins of the sales order department and went to where the work was done. Here is what we observed:
• A computer system stalled according to the sales associate by “some buffering problem” that IT was working on
• An incorrect price list, which needed to be verified and approved
• An inconsistency between the customer’s and manufacturer’s drawings
• A phone coverage issue, specifically, quotes from different time zones frequently generated abnormal quote times
• Escalation challenges: when technical questions were not directly answerable, the path to the correct answer was not always clear

This is a partial list of process abnormalities, not all from one order writer or a single order, but most directly observable within the 15-minute time frame and all coming directly from the front lines. “What will you do now?” I asked Lorie.

“I guess I need to go see for myself more often,” she said.

In many cases, we have led the horse to water but he or she is still thirsting for the truth. The idea of direct observation continues to be foreign to many managers, who feel that division of labor dictates they get their information secondhand, massaged, summarized, and homogenized. Change leaders would do well to remind managers of the motto of the Royal Society, the seat of modern science and philosophy: “Nullius in verba”—a Latin expression meaning “Take nobody’s word for it.” This gold standard of objectivity encouraged scientific thinkers not to let status quo politics and prevailing beliefs affect their thinking. If we are truly seeking a culture change to our organizations, we need to encourage the same thinking from our leaders.

In your organization, have you led the horse to water? Has she drunk? Share a story.

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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.