The Importance of Respect for People

Sometimes lean thinking and behaviors are being used without being known.  Common examples are Subway or Zappos.  But it can happen in our own work too.

I have been implementing lean for 10+ years now and just this morning it hit me about a time when I was putting good lean thinking to work and had absolutely no idea.  Fifteen years ago, I was a 21-year-old college student doing an internship with RCA.  At the time, I had heard of Shingo and read his book The SMED System, but I had never heard the term lean.

I was put in charge of running a production area for a couple of months.  My team consisted of 10 union employees.  The management – union relationship in this facility was terrible.  On my first day, I gathered the team together and laid out our production goals and time frame.  I asked how they wanted to set up the area for the best production.  We spent the first day or two experimenting and getting our process down.  By the third day, the team was really doing well.  The team’s production numbers weren’t that good the first week because of the experimenting that we were doing at the start of the week.

In very traditional management fashion, I never saw my supervisor the entire week until Friday afternoon when he came out to let me know not hitting our goals was unacceptable.  I tried to explain the setup but he didn’t want to hear it.  I think the only reason I got some latitude was because I was an intern and he would only have to put up with me for a few weeks.

The next week the team was familiar with the process they had designed and executed very well.  We hit our goal on the nose, so I didn’t see my supervisor at all that week.

The following week they came to me and wanted to tweak the process.  I thought that was a great idea, so they did.  And boy did they.  For the next 4 weeks they exceeded the weekly target by close to 30% each week.  I could not stop praising them during that time.  Every morning and afternoon, I made sure to let them know how much I appreciated their work.  I brought in donuts for them a couple of times and one afternoon, I let them have an hour break.

Of course, my supervisor is now coming out wanting to know what I am doing to get this productivity.  It was the highest productivity the area has ever seen.  I said I was doing nothing.  The team designed and executed the work and they even started holding each other accountable which I have never seen in a union environment.  While the team was really working hard, I would take care of the odds and ends.  For example, they forgot to put a remote control in one of the TV set boxes, so I grabbed some tape, ran out to the finished goods area, opened the box, put the remote in, and taped it back up.  I would also help carry parts in so there wouldn’t have to be so many trips.

WHOOOPS!!!!  These things were a HUGE no-no in a union shop.  I had a union shop steward come out and just light into me right in front of the team over these things.  Being young and dumb at the time, I got right back in his face about yelling at me in front of the team and so on and so forth.  It got to the point my team (all union members)  jumped in and defended me to their shop steward avoiding a grievance being filed.

The team finished the work 2 weeks faster than any team had done it.  This was something they gave a lot of interns so they had quite a few years to compare it with.

I’m not bring this story up to say, “look at how good I did.”  I bring it up because I did what I just felt was right and treated everyone with respect.  OK maybe not the shop steward.  But as I think about it now, it highlighted the importance of the Respect for People pillar of lean.  By respecting the team’s talents and knowledge and letting them use it to define the process the results came.  The time I spent working with the that team is one that I reflect on quite a bit.  It was a huge learning experience about lean before I knew anything about lean.

There are a lot of companies that respect and engage their people.  They just may not call it lean.  It may be just the way they do business.  As lean implementers, shouldn’t our ideal state be the word ‘lean’ is never used again because it is just the way all companies do business?

Posted on June 24, 2011, in Culture, Engagment, Leadership, Manufacturing, Respect for People and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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