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. 


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!

12 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.

  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.

  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!

  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.

  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?

  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?

  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.

  8. Corinne H

    Great post! As a frontline quality improvement specialist this really hit home for me as so often when I speak to our senior leaders about strategy and how to connect the improvement work from the frontline to the organizational objectives and vice versa, I hear the similar comments from some. Some seem “stuck” in the old way of working – providing directions rather than guidance needed to help the frontline see the connections to the bigger organizational goals and outcomes. Belief that “subject matter experts (SMEs)” means someone like me with training in quality improvement and that these SMEs are the only ones that know how or can make changes is in my view egotistical. Unfortunately, though it continues to be some people’s viewpoint despite contrary evidence.
    I can’t control other’s thinking or beliefs but I can control how I think and react. For me this is continued reminders that quality improvement is more than tools and techniques. Quality improvement means servant leadership. I tell all the teams and individuals that I coach, “I will know I have done a good job when I learn more from you than you from me. I am not here to tell you how to do your job or what to change only to give guidance on new ways of thinking about how to improve.” They are the subject matter experts not me. 🙂

  9. kristen carriera

    Really great article post! I really enjoyed reading your perspective on continuous improvements. I especially like how you opened this post talking about upper level management not being ale to take all the Lean on themselves. You note that a company should have more than a handful of problem solvers. I find this extremely important to recognize in the work force. I am senior in college and I had a professor last year who gave a piece of advice to us , “when you are at the top remember the little guy”. Such a powerful statement because often time lower level workers know more about the day to day problems of a company than the Lean analyst not onsite. This was a great read. A quick question– How do we engage executives in this philosophy, when so many refuse to implement a plan other than their own?

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  11. Devin McRoberts

    Great story, curious to see what the company is doing nowadays. I have a limited amount of experience with continuous improvement in the med device field as I am completing a green belt project in my final year of college. Talking to workers on the floor has been the best way I’ve found of discovering the real problems within the organization.

    Transforming an organization into a group of “thinker-doers” and ensuring that everyone has some degree of autonomy in their role is critical to operating at peak performance.


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