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Lean Frontiers

Dave Meier: People need challenges to engage in their work, but they also need success

By Lean Frontiers, - Last updated: Monday, April 15, 2013 - Save & Share - Leave a comment
I have to say that it is unfortunate that “Lean” (or TPS or Lean Sigma or whatever) gets used as a sort of “weapon” against workers. This is of course contrary to the actual intent, which is more to “humanize” work. But like many things about TPS and life in general, there are apparent contradictions in many things. Toyota certainly attempts to maximize the “value” of the workers, but not in a brutal sort of way. At the same time there are high expectations from people.
Toyota says, “We respect people by challenging them” so it is important to distinguish between “challenges” and just pushing people to produce more. The challenges come from solving real problems and using good thinking (yoi shina) to improve the work and the results. People inherently need challenges to “engage” in the work, but the challenges need to also include success. I think a wise leader knows when to push and when to pull back. Some leaders only have the push part of the process, and this is where the situation described in the question comes in. Let’s be clear though, greatness does not happen by average effort!
Let me talk about the office environment specifically. People often think that things are “different” in the office, and it is true, but not so much different. People have to understand that the “transparency” issue is not punitive, but rather to help understand what the causes of problems are. If the leader has created a culture of “brutality” then it will be difficult (or impossible) to get office workers (or any workers) to support the process. This is a common problem in any work environment though. No one wants to admit that what they are doing is not good enough. Everyone thinks that what they do is the best possible. So the challenge is separating the fact that problems exist, from the fault of the people doing the processes. Deming (and Toyota adopted this philosophy) said that the real failure is a failure of leadership to provide effective processes for people to do their best work.
So when there are problems  it is really a failure of leadership. But how many leaders are willing to admit that they are incapable of creating an environment where people can do their best work? It is far easier to blame “bad” workers.
The only difference in the office environment is that the work is not necessarily repetitive, and it is harder to see the “product.” But with the right coaching office people can see that their work has similar characteristics as manufacturing, and certainly has non-value added elements that can be improved. It just takes a knowledgeable sensei.

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