Rowing

I was asked about 15 years ago to give a short presentation about Poka-yoke to an association of engineering professors from different US universities.  I brought with me several actual devices that employees from my plant had developed and began to tell the story:  The technique is not so difficult, but creating an environment in which employees are comfortable surfacing these opportunities is very challenging.  Poka-yoke, the invention of Shigeo Shingo, is one of my favorites because more than any other it taps employee creativity and problem-solving talent. 

Facing this audience of PhD’s, it was pretty easy to tell from body language and facial expressions their level of engagement.   I could sense three levels of participation in front of me:

  • The first, just a few educators, was absolutely present and even excited at the concept.  Their eyes were bright and there were occasional nods and smiles.
  • The second was also present but had inquisitive expressions as if they were trying to understand what I was saying.
  • A third group tapped pencils and looked up occasionally with disapproval, giving the impression that the sooner I finished my presentation the better.  One professor in particular interjected impatiently as I demonstrated a poka-yoke device, “Couldn’t they just be more careful?” 

Ryuji Fukuda depicts these three groups as shown above.  The first group is in the boat and is rowing hard.  They’re the ones with the red faces – they get it.  The second group is in the boat, but not rowing.  They don’t get it yet, but they’re trying to understand.  And the third group is not even in the boat; they’re not interested and maybe even antagonistic.   Dr. Fukuda’s advice regarding these three groups was simple but it ran counter to my previous experience and behavior:

“Give the red-faced people all the support you can,” he recommended, “let them run with the responsibility and develop as leaders.” 

For the passengers in the boat, the largest group, he said, “These people are on the fence.  They haven’t yet committed to the new way, but they are trying to understand.  Work with them individually to understand and address their reservations.”

And for the third group that wasn’t even in the boat, Dr. Fukuda’s recommendation was: “Forget about them.  Ignore them.  Work around them.  They are a waste of your time and energy.”

I explained to Dr. Fukuda that I felt compelled to “save the last sheep”, a behavior taken from Judeo-Christian culture.  I had in mind as I spoke to him a talented but malcontent production supervisor.  Dr. Fukuda responded this way: “Bruce, it sounds like you are spending more time trying to change one person’s thinking than you spend on all the people who are already rowing.  That’s not only a waste of your time, but the people who are trying hard will be offended by your action.  They are the ones who deserve your time. ”

The next week I fired the supervisor.   The reaction from other employees was immediate and exactly as Dr. Fukuda predicted.  One factory employee (a red-faced one) summed it up:  “It’s about time!”  Very quickly, employees in the ex-supervisor’s ex-department began participating at a high level.   The experience was a personal epiphany for me.  I’d tossed a bucket on the wicked witch and when she melted, all her supposed minions cheered.  

By the date of my presentation to the esteemed group of academics I was accustomed to the reactions I was getting to my presentation.    After about forty minutes I concluded and opened for questions.  From the back of the room came a question from one of my “swimmers”:  “Don’t you think if Shigeo Shingo were alive today he would just use automation to take care of this problem?” The problem he was referring to was workers, which made me bristle. He was baiting me.  There was a smirk on the face of this person who was teaching future engineers.   I shot back,

“Dr. Shingo understood automation very well.  He defined 27 prerequisites to automation and the 26th one is mechanization.  General Motors spent 43 billion dollars on automated plants in 1973 in an effort to take care of this problem that you refer to, an amount that would have purchased all of their Japanese competitors at the time.  They felt people were the problem.   All of those lights-out plants were soon mothballed because they were inflexible and unreliable.  Companies who think that automation is simply a replacement for people get no benefit from either.”

The “swimmer” was momentarily over-powered, but, as Dr. Fukuda noted, I was wasting my time on the response.  I had won the battle, but probably lost the war as far as the “swimmer” was concerned.  He left the presentation strengthened in his resolve.   I couldn’t fire him, but I would like to have.

What are your experiences with these three groups?   Please share them with us.  Also, how do we get more professors out of the classroom and into the workplace to understand what TPS is all about? 

O.L.D.

3 thoughts on “Rowing

  1. Bruce,
    I’ve always referred to those swimmers as ‘boat anchors’ because I think they do much more damage than swimmers that slow you down. Your engine can be roaring, the bow high, but if the boat anchor is dug in all you get is a lot of noise.

    I wrote to you previously about my efforts to improve our shop. I ended that experiment two weeks ago. I thought that the owner was on board with what I was doing, but the former shop manager who is still working in the shop kept confronting me that he was still the manager, and I was just doing special projects. So I confronted the owner about what exactly the situation was. I learned that the owner was expecting me to essentially write “Shop Management for Dummies” and turn it over to the problem employee to execute! Could it get any worse?

  2. Pingback: Cost Subtraction « Old Lean Dude

  3. Pingback: Rowing II | Old Lean Dude

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