In recent years it’s become fashionable to talk about management’s support for the “frontline,” a peculiar idiom as frontline is technically defined as “that part of an army that is closest to the enemy.” Sometimes, however, the idiom fits.
Twenty years ago I was persuaded by a passionate Lean friend to purchase his company’s product, in this case a car. I had visited his factory and was particularly impressed with the engagement of frontline employees and visibility of factory management. My friend arranged a ‘VIP discount’, which sweetened the proposition and made me, of course, feel very important.
Within about two months of purchase, however, when the speedometer needle partially detached from the speed cup and flopped listlessly back and forth when the car was driven, it became necessary to visit another “frontline”, the dealership service department. I was advised there that the problem with the speedometer was one “they had not seen before”, and they would have to order the part.
“Will you advise the factory of this problem?” I asked the service manager.
“We’ll put it in our warranty report,” he replied, “and a copy will go to the manufacturer.”
When I then offered, “This kind of infant mortality for a part suggests a problem with your quality system,” he shrugged and said, “It’s not my quality system.”
I dropped the conversation at that point, happy at least that I would once again be able to tell how fast I was driving. But I no longer felt “very important,” and I wondered if a company whose slogan was “Quality is Job One” was getting feedback from their frontline employees in the service department.
Some months later, the replacement speedometer also succumbed to the floppy needle problem, but this time when I returned to the dealership I was advised the warranty period had expired. The second replacement would now cost me $360 for parts and labor.
“You’re kidding,” I exclaimed to the manager. “This is the second time the speedometer has failed. Your quality system isn’t working and I should not have to pay.”
Once again he protested, “It’s not my quality system. When the part is out of warranty, that’s it.”
“What would you attribute this speedometer failure to, then?” I asked.
“Normal wear and tear” he replied.
“Normal wear and tear for a speedometer?”, I repeated incredulously. “I think I’ll skip the repair this time thank you.”
I drove that van for close to 200,000 miles with the floppy speedometer needle, feeling every mile like “the enemy”, a very unimportant, soon-to-be ex-customer. I was too embarrassed to share my experience with my Lean friend, and so became part of the problem.
Since that experience I’ve become sensitized to the fact that there are a great many frontline employees excluded from the improvement process. We may, for example, think of docs or nurses or scrub techs as the frontlines in healthcare, but what about the administrative employees who check us in or make appointments or bill us? Or, in the furniture business, how about the delivery team that tracks mud through the house while delivering a sofa; or in sales department when a customer call is dropped. We unintentionally demean the importance of these non-production jobs when we refer to them as non-value-added. Worse, by ignoring the value these support functions add, we inadvertently place them at odds with customer needs and wants. If management does not visit, these frontlines may in fact view the customer as the enemy.
How about in your organization? Where are the front lines? Who does you management visit? Share a story.
BTW: Next week’s Tea Time with the Toast Dude topic is “Kaizen in the Office.” The venue is different, and the improvement challenge is sometimes more challenging than with the “frontline”. Please join me on Tuesday July 8, from 3:00 – 3:45 p.m. Click here to register.
Also please check out other important GBMP events including our 10th annual Northeast L.E.AN. Conference coming up this fall, Lean and Six Sigma certificate programs, Shingo Institute classes and much, much more.