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First, You've Got to Show That You Care

You can’t get people to care about their work until you first show that you care about them.

The overhead light in aisle two has been burned out for three months. It’s hard for the workers in that row to see the small parts they handle and repair. Workers sent a request to the facilities department when the light died, but for some reason nothing was done, and no one bothers to complain anymore.

Fifteen percent of the stations are missing the adjustable stools workers sit on when they’re doing repairs. Workers at those stations either stand, or use folding chairs, or office chairs. Another 10% of the stools are missing some of the casters, so the stools wobble when they sit on them.

The full-size paper drinking cups were replaced with tiny two-ounce cups by an over-eager executive in the finance department looking to cut costs. That may be fine if you’re running an espresso bar, but not in an industrial facility without air-conditioning, where the temperature can easily reach 90 degrees in the summer.

Do I even need to tell you that the company is struggling with both productivity and quality? That workers don’t seem committed to their jobs? That tool theft is a problem? That workers “steal” time by stretching their breaks?

I’ve been working with this company to improve performance on the shop floor, but progress has been incremental. I’ve drawn value stream maps of the process, stood in an Ohno Circle and watched closely for the seven wastes, and engaged workers in Toyota Kata, but without a tremendous amount of success.

It was only after a couple of months at the site that I finally noticed the burned-out light, the missing/broken stools, and the pathetic paper cups.

My slow progress finally made sense: You can’t get people to care about their work until you first show that you care about them.

Bad lighting, bad seating and bad drinking doesn’t exactly scream care and concern.

Shame on me for not seeing this problem earlier.

As I’ve been reflecting on our slow progress, I keep coming back to the story of NUMMI. John Shook describes how within the constellation of GM plants, the Fremont plant went from worst to first in quality in one year, with a 180-degree turnaround in culture, all while keeping the same workers. (In fact, the only people let go were from management ranks.) Shook explains that what changed the culture at NUMMI wasn’t an abstract notion of “employee involvement” or “a learning organization” or even “culture” at all. What changed the culture was giving employees the means by which they could successfully do their jobs.

At NUMMI, that meant the tools, the training, and the managerial support that was so badly lacking in the old GM organization.

Organizational development expert Edgar Schein argues that the way to change culture is to change cultural artifacts—the observable elements of an organization, which include what people do and how they behave. That’s what NUMMI management did, by showing in all ways, large and small, that they cared about the workers and believed in their intrinsic motivation, and not just pushing product out the door.

What story do the cultural artifacts at my client tell? That management really doesn’t care about the workers as human beings—no matter how much they say the opposite.

To be clear: I am NOT indicting my client for running some sort of Dickensian sweatshop. Having spent many days at their factory, it’s clear that management really does care. And it’s not as though the management is uniquely inept or cheap. In fact, the management is actually quite good—the new plant manager, in particular, works hard, is concerned about employee welfare and is more than willing to spend money when he needs to.

But this issue is something that all companies deal with, at one level or another—issues that get lost in the shuffle, as they get passed from one department to another, or from one person to another. Or small issues that don’t necessarily make it to the radar screen of leadership even if they’re important to the employees.

But while they may be small, they nevertheless send an unambiguous signal of disrespect. And until management shows that they care about the workers, the workers won’t care about the products.

I pointed this out to the plant manager last week. They now have a full complement of working stools and full-sized cups. They’re working on the overhead light this week.

I’m hopeful that now we’ll start to get traction. I’ll keep you posted.

Dan Markovitz is president of Markovitz Consulting, a firm that helps organizations become faster, stronger and more agile through the application of lean principles to knowledge work. He is a faculty member at the Lean Enterprise Institute and teaches at the Stanford University Continuing Studies Program. His book “Building the Fit Organization,” received the Shingo Research Award.

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