The Angry Team Member and the Changing Organization

"If you really want to know, you ruined my life." 

This was Bob’s response to a well-intentioned, "How's it going?" from me.

The Work Changes

Bob, who felt that I had ruined his life, was a team member in a section of a manufacturing plant. I was production manager of the area. Bob had experienced quite a few changes in his work situation in the previous few months. (We all had, but the difference was, not everybody felt like their life was being ruined). As production manager, I personally had become the symbol of everything that was changing in my area of responsibility and rightly so.

And a lot was changing:

  • The challenge was clear. A new model vehicle had a price on its head in the marketplace and we needed to do our part to reduce production costs while achieving a zero tolerance policy for slips in quality or safety. 
  • A new style of assembly line had been proposed and accepted under the heading of "simplifying" our area of manufacturing.
  • We were engaged in a company-wide effort to solicit the "manufacturing voice" in the early stages of vehicle development to reduce issues with close-to-launch trials.
  • Our kaizen team was experimenting with methods of transporting all the parts and pieces in the shop without forklifts.
  • To avoid the potential chaos of changing everyone's jobs in the plant at once (8,000 of us at that time), it was decided that some production shops would make their necessary process changes before others.

On this last point, we were chosen to be the first. This made business sense for the entire vehicle making enterprise, but logistically it felt like a nightmare. We had to keep producing the previous vehicle model components alongside the new model ones. Don't ask how we did it… Let’s just say what we had going was a symphony of complicated moves and counter-moves accomplished at warp speed. But with all of these changes, how to meet our challenges was up to us.

The Plot Thickens

Bob wasn't thrilled with the nature, scope, and speed of the change. He used to drive a forklift, and viewed them as an earned freedom compared to working on an assembly line. He wasn't alone.

I had heard this perspective from Bob and other team members during small group idea exchanges I held in the months preceding launch. But forklifts were not on the table for discussion, tuggers with custom designed trailers to hold specific parts were. Bob and his peers were welcome to participate in designing the new transportation methods by offering compelling ideas related to a "forklift-less" worksite.

Many team members throughout the shop jumped in with both feet. They brought forth an avalanche of ideas, an absolute treasure chest. Managing the ideas, experiments, evaluations, confirmations, and rejections was a massive undertaking. It was a good problem to have as a manager, but for some team members, it didn't make sense to engage people who had never been involved with transportation of parts before.

Some people turned to me with a wounded look and resentful question: "How could a production manager let people with little conveyance experience design equipment for our future?" I explained that qualified experience comes in different forms. They had more than enough experience with kaizen, quality circles, safety teams, and A3 problem solving. Besides that, the door was open for anyone to join in. All ideas were vetted equally.

The Chat

On the morning I learned that Bob felt I ruined his life, we were about 3/4 of the way into the launch. Bob had been on the struggling “simplified” assembly line for a month. He was angry, but I didn't duck or dive. I was still figuring a lot out as a leader, but one thing I knew was that while these situations are unpleasant and painful, they can be tremendously eye opening.

I figured that whatever came next from Bob would provide insight into why the line was struggling, making him and others miserable. So, I invited him to meet with me one-on-one and share his view. Here is some of what I learned:

  • What I observed is was just a fraction of what was actually go on.
  • Without the previous moving conveyor, team members couldn't tell if they were ahead or behind resulting in a continuously moving bottleneck. While the product launch team and I were looking for a technical fix we were missing the impact peer pressure was having. Frustration grew between those who "got it" and the ones who were so-called "slow" to catch on.
  • The launch team was focused on the major punch list (or close out) items yet missing the small hiccups that the team members were struggling to fight… alone.

Bob said absolutely nothing about forklifts.

Talk About "On The Job Training"

As I suspected, I came away with invaluable learning about what it takes to lead massive operational change. Almost everything the line was struggling with tied back to a management system that either wasn't in place or hadn't been modified for the new lines. System preparation and confirmation is as important as process readiness but these aren’t as visible until they fail.

I realized how important it is to establish the critical "who, what, when, where, which, how, how many" for line management. Standardized procedures from our "old life" dropped off the radar as we focused on more technical concerns. Shift start up procedures, team leader control boards, home position of conveyance equipment, traffic routing – all of these needed immediate attention if we were going to stabilize the worksite.

I was reminded about planning and skill development and standardized work – the critical role all of these things play, and how important it is to engage line leaders in this work. Without that upfront, defensive walls can be built so fast you don’t even notice them going up.

More than anything, any team undergoing change has to be actively managed; we can’t just assume everyone will “settle in” to the new work. Hour long quick kaizen sessions several times a day or as needed helped in this regard, balancing the work and enabling people to actually achieve some new foundation of standardized work. While all of this work was happening, I knew that how a leader and a management team spends their time is watched intently. Any cracks in a united, focused implementation effort leaves a lot of room for issues to spiral and hurts morale.

It’s a Choice to Work Together

After talking with Bob, I was able to re-focus with a more grounded, visual strategy for the shop. It might seem strange to get this from one conversation, but I did. Even more strange was how much value I got from one question Bob threw out as a challenge to me: "Do you even think this stupid line is capable of running like the previous ones?"

My reply came from a pool of confidence I didn't know I had: "Yes, I do. It's going to be even better because we designed out the flaws of the previous lines, and we have a high level of skill and energy committed here. Besides, you and I have never seen that we need each other to make this work. That's big… if it’s true for you, too."

"How long is it going to take?" Bob asked.

"One year. We'll hit our previous metrics in 9 months and people will be rocking with it in a year. No one will want to go back to the previous lines. Not even you, I bet."

We ended with a handshake, standing on firmer ground. I walked away thinking about how hard it is to for huge change to take place. Bob had reinforced my belief that it happens with one-on-one connections, if we can just get our egos out of the way. Hard stuff.

The last time I saw Bob, I was walking through the shop after being gone for a year (I had rotated to another assignment). He was working on the much-disputed assembly line. I didn’t want to interrupt him, but I wanted to at least wave. When he saw me, his face broke out in a wide grin, one I’d never seen before. He pointed at the metrics board beside the line and gave an enthusiastic thumbs up. 


Making a Football is a Contact Sport

This NFL season is over, but my thoughts of football are not.

I’ve let go of the fact that the New England Patriots are celebrating their 4th Super Bowl win while my much-loved Steelers didn't make it past the Wild Card round of the playoffs. And now my thoughts are focused on how footballs are made. That is a contact sport!

I have to admit I’ve only seen video (and my own replays) of the manufacturing processes involved, but I really want to have a go at making the work more people friendly. 

Not everyone would have the same response. It’s pretty amazing to watch as they: cut the leather, stamp the logo, split the leather, sew the ball together, turn the "carcass" inside out, insert a "bladder", lace the strings, add air pressure, measure/weigh/inspect the finished footballs – all before packing and shipping them out for backyard and ball field battles.

It isn't what football manufacturers do that bothers me, it's how they do it. There is a concept called muri, which means physical and/or mental overburden for the employee who actually does the value-adding work (in this case, making the football). From videos I watched of ball after ball being made, the manufacturing process appears to be FULL of muri. Check out this video below, for example. Here, the tour guide refers to the process of turning the football inside out as the most stressful in the plant. By all accounts Wilson makes a high quality product, but this is a perfect example of muri and how difficult it can be to improve.


I’m not so comfortable judging from the sidelines on this one. It’s not for me to challenge the production process; ideally, it’s for employees and shop floor management to ask for a “better way.” It’s their job to share their ideas for improving the work. And for all I know, some of this process improvement work has already been done.

As an avid football fan, I appreciate the work they do. But as a person who improves manufacturing processes and systems, I’d love to help the manufacturing team make it less of a contact sport on their end. There are a lot of possibilities. What muri jumps out to you?

Anybody interested in a game of muri vs. process improvement?

I Don't Know What I Don't Know, But Spread the Word

After spending several years with TSSC, Toyota's TPS outreach arm, I came to the conclusion that if I wanted to accelerate my effectiveness as a management Kaizen partner I needed to experience their world first hand. I was assigned to a 3 year rotation as a powertrain manager at Toyota's Georgetown, KY plant. The assignment was designed for me to gain experience stabilizing an area that was challenged with over-automation, launch a major new model Camry with completely revamped Just-in-Time systems, and then kaizen the entire shop to achieve all pre-launch targets. My boss and a few others were tasked with getting me up to speed on Toyota's systems of daily production, kaizen, new model planning and launch. Here’s the story of how things went.

My boss and I walked together in a companionable silence between buildings on the Toyota site. Being new in my role as a powertrain production manager, I was waiting to get a heads up about what to expect in my first new model launch meeting. Questions I wanted to ask were jostling around in my head. Patience, I thought, he has a lot on his mind.

On our walk "Little Pink Houses," a song I like by John Mellencamp popped into my head. Weird, I thought. Then I realized my boss was singing. What was that about? Any chance at clarity slammed shut as we turned into a huge conference room buzzing with activity. A sea of A3s were being staged on tables and chairs. I gathered a stack of A3s off my chair, placing them with the stack on the table in front of me.

I didn't know a soul there. He knew everyone.

As the meeting started and introductions were made, I realized my boss was the Guest of Honor. For the next hour and a half, we were in a massive review of preparations to change the Powertrain portion of a new model Camry. The only words I recognized were AAndTheProblem, and maybe Countermeasure. I furiously scribbled down hundreds of acronyms people spewed forth. Two pages quickly became full, then three. My boss looked over at me with a scowl. Pen down. 

I let the gibberish wash over me for the rest of the meeting. The meeting closed out with comments from my boss, some direction, requests, and thank you’s. My boss introduced me and said I should be ready to take over in two months. Nods, smiles, and welcomes all around, and then off we went again.

On our walk back, he commented that I seemed to be quite the note-taker. I explained that I normally wasn't actually and handed over my scribbles to him. "What's this?" he asked. "Everything I didn't recognize as a word or concept," I told him, embarrassed. He asked what it was for and I told him it was my “Discovery List” to which he replied, "Keep this up and you are going to do great."

Back at Toyota's on-site Powertrain plant (where I had recently been assigned as a production manager), I walked over to the lead Production Engineer. "How'd it go?" he asked. "I have no clue but, the boss seems to be happy," I said. This was all I could come up with.

"Feeling clueless?" he asked with a furrowed brow. I handed him the pages of acronyms and terms that I gathered in the meeting, explaining that I had no idea of what any of these things meant. Scanning the notes, he looked up and smiled. "This is great, you learned a lot." To which I replied incredulously, “What?”

"Now you know what you don't know about what it takes to get the vehicle from the designers into mass production. First step of learning, right? Knowing what you don’t know?"

"Right. Can I have that back for a second?" 

He watched as I wrote at the top of the sheet, “How can Toyota be using Mass Production and TPS at the same time?” He looked at me encouragingly and said, "Don't worry, you'll be a pro in no time. Besides, you aren't doing this alone." 

"I know, I must have met 100 people today."

"Yes, that's the planning team. I’m talking about the field team here in this plant."

Mentally, I added another item to my "Discovery List". 

How do YOU keep track of what you don't know about your work (or the work to be done) yet? I'd love to hear in the comments below.


How to Know If Your Team is Ready for Kaizen

So many middle managers seem to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders as they assess the reasons behind unhappiness in the worksites they manage. I’m often asked how I assess these situations to prepare for Kaizen or continuous improvement. 

My first point is pretty basic… do we even know what the Kaizen aim of “engaged employees” means, beyond the clichés?

When I work with people, I usually pose some questions and guide them to find their own answers. We explore the following, focusing on each question carefully:

  1. What does the behavior of a satisfied and engaged person look like to you? Can you see examples of that behavior? How is the organization contributing to that or not?
  2. Do you see some people you can ask who will tell it to you straight?
  3. What kinds of discussion can you have with people without leading them to what YOU want to hear?

Whether or not this conversation feels fruitful, sometimes I suggest we look at a small life boat that has been vetted by managers and executives around the world. Known as the Q12 survey conducted by Gallup, this simple survey measures the strength of employee engagement in any organization. Over 80,000 interviews and focus groups were conducted to confirm the effectiveness of these 12 questions as an indication of complete satisfaction and engagement of the workplace, when they are all met.

I like it because it’s simple and to the point. We can use it to dig deeper into areas of strength or weakness. The bad news is that organizations are often failing with just the first two questions. The good news is it’s easy to clarify and improve upon both of them. Thegreat news? Once you tackle the first two questions, you’ve already gone a long way to creating a meaningful job for every person in the building.

The questions:

  1. Do you know what is expected of you at work?
  2. Do you have the materials and equipment you need to do your work right?
  3. At work, do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?
  4. In the last seven days, have you received recognition or praise for doing good work?
  5. Does your supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about you as a person?
  6. Is there someone at work who encourages your development?
  7. At work, do your opinions seem to count?
  8. Does the mission/purpose of your company make you feel that your job is important?
  9. Are your co-workers committed to doing quality work?
  10. Do you have a best friend at work?
  11. In the last six months, has someone at work talked to you about your progress?
  12. In the last year, have you had opportunities to learn and grow?

I’d add a final question (which has to do with the number one reason people are satisfied in their job or not): Do you have a good relationship with your supervisor?

Once you have this specific input, you can work together with your team to make a Kaizen Strategy that shows the "Bullseye target" you’re aiming for, whether it is one improved process or a bigger system-wide initiative designed by the larger enterprise. After answering these questions, without such a heavy load of ambiguity now off their shoulders, middle managers have a much better chance of creating a work site truly filled with satisfied, engaged employees who know they are doing meaningful work.

Apologies and Prayers from Customer Service

Customer Service Representative: "We can pray." Customer (me): "What?"!!!!!!!!

Customer Service Representative: "Well, I'm sorry.  It seems that I can't track your package all the way to your house."

Me: "That's because it is not at my house."

Him: "Yes, I know.  I can track it right up to Chicago and then....."

Me: "It is in the bottom of a deep,black hole."

Him: "Exactly!  So, you can see now why I have nothing left to offer but apologies and prayers."

Me: "Grrrrrrrr, ummmmmmmmm, ..."

And so it went for me and many others as the last 48 hours before Christmas 2013 counted down.  Who knew that thousands of customers were clutching phones connected to sleep deprived Customer Service Representatives, hoping that what they were hearing couldn't possibly be true: "I am so sorry but no, it won't be there in time for Christmas."  The Representative assigned to me, the one with the strange, sarcastic sense of humor, was just icing on the cake for me.

Disappointment, frustration and  more disappointment.  I couldn't believe that I had let this happen.  Sure, I ordered the gift two weeks before Christmas but I thought that was a very cushy, no worries lead time.  The promised arrival date came and went but I was extremely busy with work, family holiday things and ordering other gifts with really iffy delivery promises.  Bottom line--I didn't check to see where the gift was until it was too late.  It was all my fault.

Later, I learned it wasn't just one thing that tipped the Missed Delivery Boat but many factors.  I am morbidly curious to know what went on behind the scenes; so many systems, processes and variables, colliding.  At some point, I realized my interest had gone over the line when I started using newspaper articles to put together a "what could have happened" fishbone diagram.  That's just not right.  I blame it on the side of me that works passionately to eliminate on-time-delivery issues (as a part of my profession).

As I put the fishbone away,  I  thought of the one gift that didn't make it to my house and the one guy that was willing to represent his company and the snafus that were happening across an entire order to delivery system.  Words are inadequate here.  Willing isn't strong enough-he showed courage.  Represent isn't even close.  He showed respect for me as a customer for telling me the truth as he knew it and listening openly to every word I said.

He showed grace to suggest some way that his customer could spend the hours before Christmas with a hopeful heart.  Now I know that his communication was not sarcastic at all.  I also believe that he took a moment to pray for my package to arrive at my house before Santa.

Even though the gift was late, my husband swears it was worth the wait.  Lucky for me but we sure don't want to depend on that goodwill. [contact-form][contact-field label='Name' type='name' required='1'/][contact-field label='Email' type='email' required='1'/][contact-field label='Website' type='url'/][contact-field label='Comment' type='textarea' required='1'/][/contact-form]