Lazy Lean Guy

lazyleanguyIn 1987, shortly after I became a manufacturing manager, the shop foreman at the time warned me about a young assembler: “Watch out for Michael, he’s tends to bend the rules. You may need to talk to him.” In fact, I did watch Michael and it did appear that he approached his work a little differently — a bit like the violinist whose bow was out of sync with the rest of the section. So, I asked him “Why do you do it this way?   Michael responded impishly, “I’m just naturally lazy.” “What do you mean by that?” I queried. Then flood gates opened.

Michael explained how he organized his bench, tools and material, to make the job easier. “Look,” he said, “I set up for each job so I’m not running around looking for things.” He pointed to another employee who was obviously searching for something. “Like her,” Michael said.

I chuckled and asked “Is that what you mean by lazy?”

“That’s what they tell me,” Michael smiled, and then continued. “For example, I assemble this product in a different order than Bob,” alluding to another assembler to his left.   “Bob follows the rules, but the rules leave out a couple of important steps,” Michael said. “I still finish faster – and it’s easier!” At that moment I realized what the foreman had meant by ‘bend the rules.’   “Have you mentioned this your section leader?” I asked Michael.   “Ha!” Michael replied. “He told me ‘We’ve always done it this way and it would be best if I just followed the rules.’”

Around this time we were just beginning our Lean journey, referring to it then simply as ‘continuous improvement,’ and I was struck by the lack of either a system or an environment that would enable someone to make an improvement that wasn’t expressly focused on the external customer. Why not make the job easier?

I approached the foreman to let him know I’d met with Michael and observed his work. “It seems like he has some good ideas,” I said.  “Yeah,” replied the foreman a bit resentfully, “he’s always got a better idea, to make things easier for himself.” “Isn’t that okay, too?” I asked. The foreman responded stoically, “We’re in business to satisfy the customer, not ourselves.” This was his paradigm, and I soon discovered that it was shared by many managers. “You’re coddling the employees,” a peer manager protested. “Do you think this a garden club?”

Happily, thanks to few more “lazy” folks like Michael, “making the job easier” eventually became a legitimate concept in our factory. Some years later, I read a quote from Taiichi Ohno, the father of TPS: “Why not make work easier and more interesting so that people do not have to sweat?” And Shigeo Shingo, in his book Non-stock Production, went further stating that the order of improvement must be easier, better, faster and then cheaper, in that order! He was adamant. Easier comes first.

Yet this concept of “easier” still eludes many Lean thinkers today. Try Googling the phrase “better, faster, cheaper” and you’ll find five hundred entries including books by the same name and numerous white papers from well-known consultants. But if the word “easier” is included that Google search, the number of entries drops to less than 5 – and most of those are links to the theme of GBMP’s 2012 Northeast L.E.A.N. Conference!

Do managers think easy means lazy? Or do they think that honest work should be painful? I’m confounded. What do you think? Please share a thought.


11 thoughts on “Lazy Lean Guy

  1. Fatih Aksoy

    I loved your post. That’s definitely true. When I was a manufacturing engineer, I met a few brilliant guys like Michael and many more conservatives like the foreman. Thanks for your useful post!

  2. Bob Whittenberger

    Great post Bruce! I think many times leaders relate making it easier on the people as being less productive or just slowing down the process and thus adding cost. Your example of Michael’s natural tendency to make it easy for him to do the work also makes him more productive and a more engaged employee. Only if leaders are open to listening to his ideas. Imagine if everyone’s input was listened to and leaders encouraged them to make the work easier. How engaged and more productive would the people in this company be?
    Thanks, I passed this on to all of our leaders.

  3. Jason

    Well said Bruce. Whatever happened to the people in your story? Did Michael get promoted and help drive transformation forward? Did the foreman come around, or did you have to “free up his future”, and that of some of the other anchor draggers?

  4. toastguy

    Thanks for your comments. Jason – the foreman might have come around, but died too soon. Michael was promoted to group leader. Sometimes the good guys win.

  5. Kevin Kobett

    The first step in a lean transformation should be to ask all employees for a list of past achievements. These are your leaders, trainers and role models. As you said, it is likely they are being persecuted.

  6. Mark Graban

    It’s a fine line between lazy and efficient. I think one key difference is what you do with the time that’s freed up… play Sudoku or spend more time on problem solving or value added work?

  7. Jeff Geisler

    Spot on article OLD! You just can’t make this stuff up…

    As an aside, I got “lazy” in 1981 when Lotus 123 came along, and I’ve made a good living being lazy ever since.

  8. Bret Watson

    Respect for the individual is a lean tenet. Helping to make work easier means a safer, more positive environment. Lazy is old school. I see that in my parent company overseas often. You can never win w/ that attitude b/c someone will knock you off.

  9. Jason

    “Rule benders” are “canaries in the coal mine” – they can signal to us that our work improvement processes are lacking. For instance, Michael’s ideas could be implement and now we have a line that is using Michael’s techniques to improve production efficiency and reduce effort. Great! Except that someone else will have a better idea, and then the rule breaking begins again. Consternation! Now our standard work is being violated!

    Establishing an initial standard is easy. The hard part is figuring out how to continuously collect new data in a way that facilitates further improvement, without descending into chaos. This gets really hard, so the tendency for us managers is to insist everyone just stick to the standard because it’s easier and it makes life simpler for everyone. Voila…now you have the reincarnation of “We’ve always done it this way.”

    Bruce (and others) – I would be interested in how you have managed (and perhaps failed to manage!) continuous improvement upon standard work.

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