Accidental Revolution

Posted on November 26, 2012

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Last week I visited with JVS, a terrific Boston-area organization whose mission “is to empower individuals from diverse communities to find employment and build careers, and to partner with employers to hire, develop, and retain productive workforces.”  I was reminded of my first experience with workforce development, one that was detailed in a 1986 edition of TEI Newsletter under the heading ‘A Revolution That Began With a Book.”  As I reflect now, I think the heading should have read “A Revolution That Began by Chance,” because the book in question, The Goal, while thought provoking, was only indirectly the trigger of the revolution.  Here’s the real story:

In 1986, as I had just been promoted to vice president of manufacturing, a copy of The Goal was serendipitously dropped in my lap by a visiting consultant.  I liked the book so much that I ordered four more copies for my managers.  They liked it too, mostly because they identified with the fictional plight of the story’s protagonist, Alex Rogo, a poor slob trying unsuccessfully to please the customer.   We all felt like Alex.

The next thing I did caused a few persons to question my sanity.  I purchased several hundred more copies of The Goal to distribute to every employee in manufacturing.  I thought to myself, “Here’s a story that articulates many of the problems we have, and recommends a path out of those problems.”  I wrote a short note to employees asking them to read the book and enclosed it with the book in the weekly paychecks.  “It’s an easy read,” I thought naively “that will align everyone’s thinking around continuous improvement.”  On Thursday afternoon, books and paychecks were distributed.

As left the building on Thursday, I noticed several dozen copies of the book strewn in the parking lot.   My first emotions were anger and betrayal.  What had I done to deserve this?  Didn’t employees want to learn?  Didn’t they want to do a better job?   I scooped up copies from the parking lot as if I was erasing graffiti, and, like Alex Rogo, went home to stew about my problems.

The next morning I pulled together a quick meeting of managers and supervisors to get their reaction to the book trashing.   There were several I-told-you-so’s: “You should’ve known those folks would not read a book.”   But Evie, a production supervisor offered diplomatically, “Perhaps you insulted some employees because they can’t speak English.”   Suddenly I felt stupid.  It should have been obvious to me that communication in our plant was severely limited by lack of a common language. In fact, there were at least seven different languages spoken in our factory.  Many factory workers were bi-lingual, but their second language was French, not English.

Shortly thereafter, Evie submitted an employee suggestion that employees in her department be taught English.  Our HR manager ran with the idea, identifying an organization like JVS to provide ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) training to any interested non-English speaking employees.  He also found state funding to pay for the training.   To the surprise of many, fifty employees signed up!

More surprising still was the change in thinking within the factory.  The company had invested in people, not just machines.  And the ROI was seen in more problem solving, better teamwork and more ideas.  The final irony was that the ESOL students were learning Japanese words as well, like Kaizen and Kanban and Poka-Yoke, as part of their English curriculum, in many cases better than our native English-speaking employees.

Are you investing in your employees?   The payback is huge.  Share a story.

O.L.D.

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Posted in: Old Lean Dude