In 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.