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Jeff Liker

Jeff Liker: A problem can be a treasure if leaders make efforts to eliminate fear of failure

By Jeff Liker, - Last updated: Saturday, April 6, 2013 - Save & Share - Leave a comment
Certainly any tool or approach, technological or social, can be used for good or evil and people with power generally make the difference.   In a positive environment, that is fertile for lean, leaders makes a great effort to eliminate fear of failure.  It is often said that “a problem is a treasure.”  This does not mean that you want to generate problems for the sake of creating treasures, but that finding one that is occurring and surfacing it is a treasure because now you can solve it.
I was in an office environment at Zingerman’s mail order (ship the gourmet foods of Zingerman from Ann Arbor, Michigan) where one of my former students has been consulting on lean for some years.  The owner-CEO is an extremely positive leader.   They did amazing things in the warehouse with lean and the manager of the customer call center wanted to get in on the act.  She figured out that there was tremendous variation in workload due to customer call ins and it was somewhat arbitrary who got the call from a group of team members.  Thus, it was not visible who was busy and who was not.   She got with the team and they reoriented the layout to be like a cell.  They decided that the first person sitting on one end of the cell would be first to get a call and as calls came in and she was busy the next person would take the next one and so on down the row. This meant that if there were not enough calls to keep everyone busy it would be visible that one or more people would have nothing to do–a big problem for those idle people in a traditional environment.  They then created a visual board on the wall with days of the week as headings and various intermittent tasks that had to be done (e.g., water the plants, clean up, etc.).  They put cards at the intersection of each task and day.  A person idle goes to the board and grabs the next card and performs the task.  When it is done they turn the card around so it is a different color signaling it is done.
With this simple system they are making the work visible–something you seek to avoid if you do not trust management.  Since this was an atmosphere of trust and encouragement the team was very proud of this new system and suddenly all those intermittent tasks that you tend to get behind on got done every day.   What a win-win!
I propose that healthy, intelligent leaders need to do whatever they can to be positive and develop trusting relationships regardless of the environment they are in.  If it is really toxic take the first chance you have to get out or it will drain the life out of you.

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