Newsflash! Respecting workers = better results!

By Dan Markovitz

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal ran an article explaining that employees are more likely to embrace changes when they’re fully informed of the rationale behind those changes. What?!?!?!? You mean that performance relates to worker involvement?!?!? Shocking!!!

Foremost Farms USA, a dairy cooperative in Wisconsin, decided it was important to reduce the variation in size of the blocks of its American-style cheese. The normal variation was 30-40 pounds on a 640 block of cheese. But due to a customer’s demand for precise weight on its cheese, the company needed to reduce that variation. Naturally, top management sent a “directive” down to the line workers telling them of the new policy. Results were predictable, at least to readers of this blog:

At first, the initiative went well, recalls Doug Wilke, vice president of manufactured products…. But once managers stopped checking, workers resumed making cheese the old way: as fast as possible. “Weights started fluctuating,” says Mr. Wilke.

Eventually, the company hired a communications consultant who developed a presentation with Mr. Wilke to explain the competitive threats the company faced and the changes it needed to make. Not surprisingly, workers appreciated the information and asked for more such meetings. As a result, along with other improvements, the weight of those cheese blocks varies a lot less.

Kudos to the company for deciding to talk to the workers and explain management decisions. But the company, the consultant, and the journalist all miss an even more important point: that actively involving workers in the process would lead to more satisfied employees and even better results.

The article maintains that the real managerial dilemma is “how to communicate directives so that workers follow them.” But this approach implicitly treats workers as mindless automatons, lacking in the creativity that could improve the process.

A lean organization wouldn’t simply tell workers to reduce variation in cheese weight. First, management would explain changing customer needs — perhaps even sending workers to the customers (genchi genbutsu) so that they could see for themselves what the market requires. Then management would use the workers’ creativity and experience to figure out how to make a product that meets customer requirements. In this way, workers would understand why the current situation has changed and would have an opportunity to problem solve part of the production process: how to reduce variability in the final cheese weight.

I believe the problem is with the notion of a “directive.” There’s a sense that a top-down order can’t — or shouldn’t — be questioned. There’s also a unilateral quality to a “directive.” These two elements combine to make “directives” extraordinarily ineffective at promoting long-term, sustainable change in behavior or process.

The opposite of the top-down directive is the practice of involving workers in decisions. This kind of worker involvement is a critical form of respect, and results in better processes and products.

Obviously, management has the right — and the obligation — to set goals for a firm. But translating goals into “directives” undercuts the firm’s ability to actually achieve them, because “directives,” by their very nature, don’t take advantage of employees’ talents, skills, and experiences (the eighth waste). It’s far better for the workers to figure out how to improve the current state.

When Toyota preaches respect for people, it’s not just because they want to be seen as a bunch of nice guys. It’s because they want to improve their processes and achieve better results.

The real managerial problem then, is not how to communicate directives. It’s how to build a company that’s a problem-solving organization, in which workers have the responsibility, the authority, and the desire to make the appropriate changes. Fortunately, the Toyota Way provides a roadmap.

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Dan Markovitz

Dan Markovitz is president of Markovitz Consulting, a firm that radically improves operational speed and efficiency by applying lean concepts to knowledge work. He is a faculty member at the Lean Enterprise Institute and teaches at the Stanford University Continuing Studies Program. He also lectures on A3 thinking at the Ohio State University’s Fisher School of Business. Dan is a frequent speaker and presenter at conferences, and has consulted to organizations as diverse as Camelbak, Clif Bar, Abbott Vascular, WL Gore & Associates, Intel, the City of Menlo Park, and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. His book, A Factory of One, was honored with a Shingo Research Award in 2013. Dan has also published articles in the Harvard Business Review blog, Quality Progress, Industry Week magazine, Reliable Plant magazine, and Management Services Journal, among other magazines. All of these articles are available for download on the Resources page. Earlier in his career, he held management positions in product marketing at Sierra Designs, Adidas, CNET and Asics Tiger, where he worked in sales, product marketing, and product development. He also has experience as an entrepreneur, having founded his own skateboarding footwear company. Dan lived in Japan for four years and is fluent in Japanese. He holds a BA from Wesleyan University and an MBA from the Stanford University Graduate School of Business.

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3 Comments on "Newsflash! Respecting workers = better results!"

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  1. Frisbeeralf says:

    Hi Dan,

    you are quite right: involve and win the workforce and you will get any change program rolling to the disered direction and goal:-))

    BUT it is really difficult for managers to see -as long as they are not leaders as well!

    Let’s hope for the best and other good examples.

    Regards

    Ralf

  2. David says:

    Why on earth would the guy have to hire a consultant to develop a presentation to his own workers? Isn’t the ability to communicate a primary job responsibiity of any senior-level position?

  3. Dan Markovitz says:

    David,

    You know the old joke about consultants: they take your watch, charge you $10,000, and tell you what time it is.

    Yes, it’s absurd that a senior level manager needs (1) to be told that he should communicate, and (2) help in preparing a presentation (presumably Powerpoint). But that’s the situation in so many companies — particularly when employees are viewed strictly as costs, rather than assets.

    It’s good news for consultants, though….

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