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.
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!