Are Millennials the Only Ones Who Need to Understand Why?


Being born in 1973 puts me in “Generation X,” although I've never been one to really embrace a generational label like that. It doesn't mean much to me.

I'm clearly not a “Millennial,” the generation born after 1980, as I've got a lot of grey hair (I count as the “resident gray hair” at KaiNexus, not that the term gets thrown around there as it does sometimes in startup land).

It makes me wrinkle up my forehead (which already has enough wrinkles) when I read articles about what Millennials want in the workplace. It usually just sounds like things that people of any age would want or have desired. But are workplaces finally providing these things because the Millennials demand them?

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I saw this article in the WSJ yesterday about the NFL's St. Louis Rams: “How the Rams Built a Laboratory for Millennials.”

The team has the youngest roster in the league, with an average age of about 24. So, coaches and management have tried some different approaches. They have an “innovative plan for teaching millennials.”

“Our players learn better with two phones and music going and with an iPad on the side,” [head coach Jeff Fisher] said. “That's new.”

Oh, so Millennials like music in the workplace? That's new? I remember factory workers in the mid 90s fighting with management about being able to play a boombox or wear a Sony Walkman while working. I guess they were multitasking, even without smart phones. That doesn't seem new.

“The next frontier in football is understanding the mind and figuring out how you can test and teach,” he said.

That's been a workplace frontier and effort for a while now. The World War II “Training Within Industry” program was designed, in part, to teach better methods for how to train employees to do their jobs. That approach is applicable and being used in healthcare today, by the way. Rather than assuming that supervisors naturally know how to teach a job, the “Job Instruction” method in TWI makes training a teachable skill and method. Starbucks uses TWI also, and not just for Millennials.

They also need to know “why” to everything: If you explain a concept to them on the field, they need to know the reason behind it. Millennial players questioning everything is something that's helped the Rams, the team says, because it forces coaches and executives to examine their own methods (Why are we doing this?).

Trust me, “questioning everything” is not new. People have been doing that in the workplace forever, whether they were just curious or if they were being a smart aleck. Unfortunately, most organizations are good at squashing that ability to speak up and question things.

And the idea of knowing why… again that's an old desire. It's not just a recent discovery of Simon Sinek and the outstanding book Start with Why (my friends at Gemba Academy have a podcast interview with him coming soon). Why are we doing something? Why are we starting this company? That's an old tale… are you breaking rocks or building a cathedral?

The TWI method and Lean “standardized work” methods explain WHY to employees. The “Job Breakdown Sheet” isn't just a list of tasks to do, with timing about how long they should normally take.

A Job Breakdown Sheet also lists “key points” and “REASONS WHY,” explaining why things should be done a certain way. See examples here.

That's a method that has been useful since the 1940s. I saw it being used at GM in the mid 90s, as it was a practice copied from Toyota, who was taught TWI after the war and incorporated it into Lean.

Don't get me wrong…. I'm not bashing Millennials for wanting to know the reasons why they should do their jobs a certain way. I'm just saying they're not unique in that need or desire.

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  1. John Hunter says

    > It usually just sounds like things that people of any age would want or have desired

    Yes. Yes. Yes.

    People are people. How to manage human systems doesn’t depend on the generation the workers are considered to be from. There are a few things that are more common in one generation than another but we way over-estimate the importance and way over-estimate how common it is in the generation in question.

    Pay attention to people and their needs. That is what you need to do. Paying attention to their generation doesn’t help and in my experience almost always is a size of bad management that is satisfied with incredibly vague understanding to make decisions.

  2. Mark Graban says

    Today on NPR, I heard something about how millennials like “workplace flexibility,” as if work/life balance was invented by them.

  3. Dean Bliss says

    I’m guessing that the desires and information noted are not new, but maybe they are being vocalized and listened to in a different way today. I remember the days of “idea people” being labeled as troublemakers and squashed or moved to other jobs. Perhaps the Rams are simply doing a better job of listening than they have in the past.

  4. Christina Kach says

    Every generation has wanted things. Like we all enjoy listening to music in the given example. Instead, maybe workplaces are finally realizing (vs. millennials “demanding”) that helping make for a comfortable work environment makes all employees happier and more productive. Flexible work arrangements make lots of employees happy, not just Millennials. And of course, there are always a few “rotten apples” that give the rest of the generation a bad name. A few Millenials may think they world is owed to them, but I know plenty that understand they have to work hard and humbly for their careers.

    1. Mark Graban says

      Thanks for your thoughts, Christina. I didn’t mean to paint with a negative broad brush about Millennials. It’s just interesting that industries seem to discover these supposedly new desires and concepts. There’s a similar silliness, I think in marketing to Millennials. I have a friend who owns some pizzerias and he’s bombarded with pitches from marketing hacks about what he should supposedly do to appeal to Millennials. The word “chill” is usually involved :-)

      Millennials like choice in their products! They like to customize things!

      That’s not a new desire, either :-)

  5. Edythe Thompson via LinkedIn says

    Explaining why has so many positive consequences. A major one is that it increases trust. If people know the reason for a particular method or policy, they can easily make decisions consistent with the reasoning, especially in situations where methods and policies are silent. So much waste is eliminated when people know they can trust themselves and each other.

  6. Zack Olson via LinkedIn says

    Great article, I was just thinking about this concept a few weeks ago. The ability to ‘check’ authority answers and concepts blew up with the Internet. Thanks! // Zack

  7. Steve Smith via LinkedIn says

    Pretty sure “it’s best practice” is the new “that’s how we’ve always done it” answer to “why?” If it’s really best practice, and you understand why it’s best practice, you should be able to explain why it’s a best practice, just saying it’s best practice doesn’t make it so.

  8. Josh Berkman via LinkedIn says

    Totally agree. Generational stereotypes are nonsense.

  9. Mark Graban says

    This article made the curmudgeon in me laugh… and I think it makes a similar point:

    Why Companies Like Chuck E. Cheese Turn Everything Into a Matter of ‘Understanding Millennials’

    These efforts are always interesting to watch in light of how vague and amorphous — and often meaningless — this millennials label is. As we see over and over again, whether the subject is human resources or dating or whatever else, millennials is a handy way to make commonsense observations about people sound fresh and new and important without really saying anything at all.

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