The Ear of the Beholder

A short time after I moved into operations as the VP of manufacturing, our assembly department made an early and, dare I say, imperfect attempt to realign the factory floor for ease of material delivery and pick-up.  I would not describe this as improved flow, as we were still delivering heaping piles of kitted orders to the factory by the pallet-load.  At best, this was a superficial improvement to widen the conveyance lanes and keep the pallet jack from knocking into the workbenches.  But, very early in the improvement process, as a new kid in town, I was taking some satisfaction that we had made any change to free up our clogged arteries.

After several days of operating with this change, I approached a production employee with the question, “Vahram, what do you think of the new layout?”   Vahram answered back to me, “I like my job!” Not exactly the answer I was looking for, but I took it as a positive opinion, and responded “Thank you, I’m happy to hear that.”   There were seven different languages spoken in our factory, and English was a second language for many employees, so short interchanges like this were normal.  What was not normal however was the concern that shown on his face as he answered me.  I asked him, “Are you sure?  Is there a problem?”  He tried to smile as he responded once more, “I like my job.”   “Okay,” I said, “I’ll see you later.”

Several hours later the employee’s supervisor approached me with this concern: “There’s a rumor going around in the plant that there’s going to be a layoff.”

I groaned.  “Great.  Where would a rumor like that come from?”

“Well,” answered the supervisor, “Vahram said you told him that there was going to be a new layoff and then said that he was a problem.  He said you’d be coming back later to fire him.”

I think I let out a faint yelp as I heard this, half laugh and half gasp.   “I didn’t say anything like that!” I explained.  “I only asked him how he liked the new layout.”

“Well,” responded the supervisor,  “Varham is good man. I hope I’ll have something to say if there’s going to be a layoff.”

“There’s not going to be any layoff!”  I exclaimed.   I was startled that Vahram misunderstood me, and now more startled that the supervisor was not hearing my explanation.  The factory was buzzing with anxious rumors based upon what I had thought was a friendly exchange.

I accompanied the supervisor, who unlike me was multi-lingual, to apologize to Vahram for the misunderstanding.  I realized during this exchange however, that the primary reason for the confusion was not language, but predisposal: Neither Vahram nor his supervisor had anticipated an interrogative statement from the boss.  They both took it as declarative.   In short, they didn’t know me, and they didn’t trust me.   I was a new kid in town, but to them I was just more of the same.  Another boss.

As the cliché goes, “Actions speak louder than words.”  Over a period of months and years I worked to earn their trust, but I don’t think the layout/layoff confusion was ever completely clarified.   What I had said was never recorded or witnessed by anyone other than Vaharm and me, but what he heard had impacted the anxiety and output of the factory for several days.


About a week later I heard this version of the incident, which had been circulating in the plant:  “Bruce was planning to layoff Vahram, but Vahram’s  supervisor spoke on his behalf, so Bruce changed his mind.”

How about communication in your business?  Between departments?  Between management and workers?  Between your organization and your suppliers?  Or between divisions within your company?  And what do you think this story has to do with TPS?  Please share your thoughts.


BTW:  This week is the 25th anniversary of my layout faux pas, and it’s also the first anniversary of my Blog.

3 thoughts on “The Ear of the Beholder

  1. Tom Warda


    Lean is all about continuous improvement – which most people translate internally to mean “change.” But most people flat out don’t like change. (I should also add that the bigger the change, the more they’ll generally resist it.) So this should tell all of us trying to implement Lean that whatever we’re proposing is going to be resisted – even if it’s actually the best thing for the people and the business.

    One way to help people come to grips with change is communication. And by communication I don’t just mean e-mails from somebody in corporate – although sometimes they are needed. What really needs to happen is that leadership needs to be constantly out at Gemba talking and listening to the troops. Only then do we have a chance of helping people understand the need for change so that they’re actually driving much of it.


  2. Denise K

    Understanding culture is important and challenging to say the least. I’m in the US and responsible for a team in India. One time I gave the manager reporting to me feedback about a complaint that had been raised against about her. Normal type of interaction in the US: here’s the behavior that was incorrect, here’s why it was incorrect, let me know what you’re going to do to correct it. Within hours I was receiving emails from her, from her HR, and from the director of the facility saying I had harassed the person and she had to visit the Dr. and would be off work because she was so distressed. What?!! Just like you, I didn’t see that one coming. It has me wondering what the ripple effect was.


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