What is a Thinker-Doer?

Several years ago, I was asked to address a startup meeting at a new client, a large manufacturer of medical devices.  The company was resource rich, but after several years of trying had not yet gained significant traction with their Lean efforts.   

There were perhaps forty persons in the room, half from line management and half from their continuous improvement staff.  I addressed the group, first describing my organization GBMP and then sharing a little bit about my own previous experience as an operating manager. Specifically, I described the challenge to shift from a bounded-thinkers-and-doers paradigm to one where every employee is a thinker-doer.  (GBMP’s slogan, Everybody Everyday, is derived from that experience.)  “Managers can’t take on this Lean challenge all by yourselves,” I cautioned my audience. “There’s just too much to be done. It’s crushing to have just a few problem solvers.”   I glanced around the room and saw some nods in agreement.  “And anyway,” I continued, “while the persons operating the machine or entering the work orders may not be PhD’s, I promise you they know more about the problems in their jobs than anyone else.”  This remark elicited a skeptical frown from one attendee. I then further asserted, “The best improvement ideas actually come from the people who do the work.”  That statement pushed my now-agitated skeptic over the edge.  “We don’t encourage the low-value ideas here,” he blurted out. 

My blood pressure rose suddenly at his implication:  Ideas from the front line are low in value; not an especially enlightened viewpoint.  My first instinct was to leap across the table and strangle this gentleman, but I gathered my composure and responded.   “Many so-called small ideas quickly accumulate into big improvements for your customers.   More importantly, the transformative power of many small improvements converging from all points transforms your organization to a thinker-doer culture.  When that happens, your improvement process truly becomes continuous.”   Once again, some heads nodded in approval, but my skeptic stood his ground: “We have subject matter experts,” he said smugly. 

When the meeting was over, I quietly asked my host, “Who was that skeptic?”  Turns out he was the Vice President of Continuous Improvement — and a PhD.  Maybe too smart for Kaizen.   

What percent of your employees are thinker-doers?  What percent of your employees are too smart for Kaizen?  Please share a comment. 

O.L.D. 

P.S. GBMP’s 15th Annual Northeast Lean Conference in Hartford CT gets under way in less than 30 days. Consider attending – and bring your thinkers, your doers and your thinker-doers – for two enriching and inspiring days featuring four exceptional keynote presentations, 60+ breakout sessions, valuable benchmarking and fun networking with 500+ passionate Lean practitioners just like you. I would love to see you and your team there!

8 thoughts on “What is a Thinker-Doer?

  1. John Gross

    Great article. Doesn’t the VP’s mental models explain why the company has not gained traction in lean–creating and sustaining savings. This attitude, which probably flows down through out the CI organization, prevents risk taking and engagement.

    Reply
  2. Ralf VonSosen

    Great message. I believe the ability to enable all associates to use their creativity to contribute to innovation, AND also take action on those ideas can transform a company. This is where technology, combined with culture, can make a difference by allowing associates to document their ideas, experiments, and be recognized for their contributions.

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  3. Gabrielle Place

    Great post, in my Supply Chain Management class at college we always discuss how some of the best process improvements come from the workers themselves. However, I have always wondered how many firms actually implement this idea. The VP’s mentality is something that I have seen in many places that I have worked and within case studies that I have read. This is why I find it especially important to teach that no one is above others, all ideas are worth hearing and can potentially become lean improvements. As Mr.Gross had mentioned, with the negative attitude of the VP, it is no wonder that the company has not grown.

    Thank you for sharing!

    Reply
  4. Erica Dillon

    I really enjoyed this post! I can relate to this issue at a past job of mine a few summers ago. My boss liked everything to be done his way, and any other way of doing it just wouldn’t cut it; even if your way of doing the task was more efficient. He could not be bothered to hear any sort of process improvement suggestions and would only make improvements if they were his own doing. I think sometimes many executives find themselves to be power hungry and like being the ones to implement successful strategies because they enjoy the praise. It sounds like in this situation, the VP is very similar to this type of businessman, and doesn’t like to be told what he should be doing. However, I think many businesses can benefit from advice and suggestions from all employees in the company. Every employee has a part in a company, and they can see what needs to be improved. At my summer internship, a few executives came and listened to our end of the summer projects, where we came up with a way to improve the company in its efforts to promote and supply energy to families around the northeast. And many executives enjoyed hearing our thoughts, and even gave a few of us a chance to present these ideas in real business meetings with people that could implement these improvements. I think that by listening to one another and seeing what works and what doesn’t, many businesses can see more success than failure.

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  5. Ricky Finnigan

    This article really captured the importance of continuous process improvement and how important it is that everyone on the team is aware of potential and current problems. I really enjoyed the quote “Managers can’t take on this lean challenge all by themselves”. Without knowing where problems lie on every level, there will always be a set back in your operation. A question I have is how to have exceptional communication when your team consists over thinker-doers and just doers who do not seem to grasp the importance of change in the workplace?

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  6. Ricky Finnigan

    I agree that it is very important for all members of your operation to focus on continuous process improvement. It is vital that all members of the team must be aware of potential/current problems. If not, the process will never be fully improved. I enjoyed the quote “Manager’s can’t take on this lean challenge themselves”. My question is how can a manager effectively communicate with their team when there’s a mix of thinker-doers and doers who do not gasp the importance of change in the workplace?

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  7. Ray Dunn

    I learned a long time ago that the people doing the work know what issues exist in the process they are doing and I have found that many times they have been asked for suggestions but were never used nor implemented. I remember a time when I was ‘new’ in a company and during initial tour of line, asked someone what would they change if they could wave a magic wand. I got their idea, looked into it and caused the change to happen in about a week. The next time I was on the line, that worker came to me and said, “you are the first person who asked for my ideas and actually used it…” I had a friend for life from that time on.
    You are spot on.

    Reply

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