A Better Class of Prisoner

I attended a very nice presentation recently by a person who has been leading the Lean charge for several years at a major medical center.   As he reflected on key elements of his organization’s success, however, he made a statement that set off my crap detector:  “It’s most important to start with good people,” he said, “they are the key to success.”  While I think the comment was intended to compliment his Lean compatriots, I worry how it sounded to others in the audience and what it implied.   Is the secret to successful Lean implementation an adept talent recruitment program?  And what are the traits we are recruiting?   What is a good employee?

When I hear the phrase “good employees”, I think back to some early days in my own Lean journey.  I was moving into a role of VP of Manufacturing when a list was presented to me of employees who “would be trouble.”  I’d heard about these kinds of lists, but had never actually seen one and, until that point, thought that such lists were just the product of gossip.  But there it was.  No one wanted to take credit for creating it, but the supervisor who handed the list to me simply said I should “keep an eye on these folks.”  I thanked him for his concern, saying I would make up my own mind about people.

To be sure, the employees who “made the list” were outspoken about problems they saw, ranging from broken equipment to inequitable HR practices. They wondered, for example, why a factory employee had to work ten years to enjoy the same benefits that an office employee was given on their first day of employ.   Some were angry, a couple were occasionally belligerent.  One, who had been an assembler for twenty-seven years, complained that many assembly fixtures had been made for left-handed people because the model shop manager was left handed.   This “problem employee” began building assembly fixtures that worked on his own time, and eventually transitioned to that role full-time, helping everyone in assembly. He joked to me on one occasion, “Hey, you opened the cell door and let me out.”  Another of the potential “troublemakers” was a product tester with a reputation for criticizing management policy.  She commented to me once “Managers are people who sound like they know what they’re talking about even when they don’t.”  This person later became a full-time continuous improvement facilitator.

(Some years after that she and I were married – Mrs. Toast.) 

In fact, these employees mostly turned out to be the early challengers of the status quo.  They were dissatisfied, and not afraid to take a risk to change it.   Were they the good employees to whom my speaker was referring?

On the day in 1985 that the notorious list of troublemakers was passed along to me, I scanned it and wondered to myself what types of employees these were, to be singled out.  Were these the persons responsible for the poor condition of the factory whose leadership I had just inherited?   Then, I recalled a quote from Lester Maddox,  a former, not-so-esteemed governor of Georgia from the late 1960’s.   When asked about the deplorable state of the Georgia state prison system, Governor Maddox lamented that conditions in the prisons would not improve until there was a better class of prisoner.

Is your organization looking for a better class of prisoner or are you
just opening the cell doors?    Share a story from your organization.


5 thoughts on “A Better Class of Prisoner

  1. David Sproul

    A “good employee” is simply the opposite of a bad one. I am apparently an example of a bad one …….

    DS – retired SSBB

  2. N

    Thanks O.L.D., the posts keep me going. I’m going to refelect on this at work. I did think of something though… ” better class of prisoner” a.k.a “victim of the system”


  3. Tim Pettry

    Great post, Bruce. I had similar experiences while at Ford’s Cleveland Engine Plant 1. I was made aware of some “problem” UAW workers. Rather than try to work around them, my UAW partner and I embraced them, found out what the root cause of their “problem” was and engaged them in improving their work areas. Once we “converted” these “problems”, others noticed the change in behavior and wanted to be a part of the change as well. A problem plant that was scheduled to close in 2000 is now working 7 days a week producing high quality engines that power some of Ford’s most important vehicles. We helped save 600 jobs at the time and now the plant has over 1,000 employees working there. Good reminder that “problems” are only opportunities in disguise.

  4. PW

    I concur. Many a “problem child” has turned out to be among my best CI enthusiasts over the years. Listen to them and you will often find they know the root cause of many problems and have amazing ideas on how to solve them.


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