I had a project where I was hired to try to help turn a company around. The challenges faced existed across the entirety of the company. In fact, there was no function of the company that was operating at an acceptable level. This company was very sick.
The owner of the company and I made a habit of walking the shop floor at the end of the day when almost everyone had left; a Gemba Walk in Lean terms. Certainly, the shop floor was devoid of activity except for the equipment that was programmed to run overnight.
As we walked the floor, the owner of the company would point to various problems; from work-in-process (WIP) inventory being scattered about and in general disorder, to the warehouse being a mess, to skids of materials nearly blocking the isles, to inventory tracking tags missing from the items being produced. The complete list of things I could identify as in desperate need of improvement on the shop floor could very well be infinite in length. It would be easier to make a list of things that were being done right. This is that list;
He would occasionally pick a terminal on the floor to show me how the employees were not working on producing what needed to be produced; instead working on whatever they thought needed to be produced (or whatever they felt like producing or were being told what to produce).
For every deficiency shared, I would ask; “Why is it this way?”
His simple response was; “They are dumb. These people are just dumb.”
He would emphasize, “duummb”
I guess we can toss the primary principle of Lean, “respect for people” out the door.
Tellingly, when I would ask several times why his employees were so dumb, his response would be; “Leadership. They don’t have any leadership.”
One night, as we were walking along, we noticed a bucket sitting atop of some sort of absorption pad in the paint-line area. The pad itself had become saturated and a large puddle had formed that was approximately six-feet by six-feet in area; including over seams in the concrete slab floor, possibly leeching into the ground. Looking at the bucket itself, we can clearly see that it was marked “acid” in big letters. Someone had noticed the bucket was leaking, but decided the remedy was to place an absorption pad underneath.
And yet the “hazardous material containment area” was less than ten-feet away.
For reasons that are not explainable, the person decided to place the absorption pad under the bucket instead of placing the bucket in the “hazardous material containment area”.
Examining the area further, I noticed a series of crescent shaped etchings on the floor. These etchings traveled along the path of the chain for the paint-line and matched the outline of the bottom of the bucket.
My conclusion was that some brainiac had actually used the bucket of acid to stand on so they could hang the sheet metal panels and parts on the paint-line. The bucket cracked under the weight of the person and, instead of putting the bucket in the hazardous material containment area, decided to place an absorption rag underneath it as a solution.
That is pretty dumb.
So, the owner called the manager of the paint-line and they both cleaned-up the mess as best they could. They started by using a base to de-activate the acid and then mopped-up the rest. What they did with the contaminated mop and bucket afterwards, I do not know.
Now, I remember a little bit about chemistry from my days in high-school. And I recall there was a potential for a toxic gas to be released when an acid and base come together (not to mention a violent reaction). There were no respirators to be found and I decided I wasn’t going to stick around to find out what the results of this particular mixture was going to be. That they both showed up for work the next day meant that they were not killed by any poison gas (or they were lucky and the gas was in too small a quantity to prove harmful).
That is pretty dumb.
On another evening’s Gemba walk, the owner pointed out some parts that had been misformed. I asked how that might be possible if the operators had work-instructions for setting-up and operating the equipment for the part that was to be formed. The owner again blamed it on the employees being “dumb” then proceeded to show me the “work instructions” on the nearby terminal. It was a PDF of the equipment’s owner’s manual; hardly what I would consider work-instructions.
Wondering how all of this can be, I eventually found my way to Human Resources and asked about the hiring and on-boarding processes for new employees. To say it was thin would be an understatement.
For new hires, they spent a lot of effort on pseudo-psychological profiling; and I was not convinced they were qualified to analyze the results. The interviews I participated in seemed to place an emphasis on comparing what the candidate thought of themselves versus what the test revealed; and whether the employee would “fit” into the “corporate culture”.
By this point, my belief was the corporate culture seemed to be about hypocrisy; they talked the talk, but they definitely did not walk the walk.
Interestingly, during candidate selection itself, they did not spend a lot of time on whether the candidate was actually qualified for the position or not; instead relying on finding “key words” in the resume to make this determination.
For instance; there was one candidate for a “Project Manager” position. Other than the title of the candidate’s last position being that of “Project Manager”, there was scant evidence that the candidate had the skills or actual experience as a project manager. Certainly, it was not indicated by the skills listed in the resume. As for experience, it was as if he just put the title of “Project Manager” on his resume to satisfy the job requirement. For all I could tell, he could have been a janitor with computer experience and just put “Project Manager” on the resume in its stead.
I recommended against hiring the candidate. But he had the right title in his former job, and they liked his psychological assessment, so he was hired.
Then I asked for the on-boarding process for new hires. What I am expecting are formal and established protocols for:
- Welcome to the company; Where the new employee completes the forms necessary for being an employee, is given a copy of the employee handbook, is given a general orientation and an overview of the company’s policies and procedures, the capturing and cataloging of any certifications and licenses, and any other activities that any new employee working anywhere in the company would have to have completed.
- Welcome to your department; Where the employee is introduced to the department’s manager and given a walk-through and orientation of the department with highlights for the safety protocols, department footprint and integrations in the production process, any key performance indicators (KPI’s) that were tracked, and anything else that is of particular note (such as don’t stand on buckets of acid).
- Welcome to your workcenter; Where the employee is introduced to the workcenter’s team leader and other workmates, the safety protocols for the workcenter, apparatus that is in the workcenter’s domain, and so on.
- Welcome to your machine; Where the employee is introduced to the equipment they will be using and its safe operation. There should be a training and checking protocol in place to ensure the employee can operate the equipment properly and produce good parts from the work-instructions, drawings, and any other materials necessary to succeed at their task.
- Education and Training; Where the employee is given a regimen to become proficient at their assigned tasks and are evaluated for their level of proficiency over time.
- Evaluations and Support; Where the employee is assessed on their specific skills and given a plan to improve their skills and, if sufficiently proficient, become the trainer/mentor for others.
But what I am given by Human Resources are only the protocols for Nr.1, and then only partially created; they did have an employee manual and they did get the necessary forms completed. But they had nothing else.
There were no formal protocols that existed for Nr.2, Nr.3, Nr.4, Nr.5, and Nr.6.
Although there were statements (talk) made about how the company supported the employees and wanted them to become proficient at their tasks; the reality (walk) was that the employee was discouraged from becoming proficient because taking any time to learn would cut into production time. Instead, the learning protocol was to scold and berate the employee when the employee did something wrong.
This company did not seek and hire talent and invest in their becoming better. They didn’t create a culture of leadership or even help those in leadership roles become better leaders. They didn’t even hire dumb with a plan to build smart.
No. This company hired dumb and kept them dumb. They hired bodies to fill holes.
But there is one thing the owner got right. As I noted at the beginning of this article, when I asked several times why things are the way they are, his response would be; “Leadership. They don’t have any leadership.”
About the author
Joseph Paris is an international expert in the field of Operational Excellence, organizational design, strategy development and deployment, and helping companies become high-performance organizations. His vehicles for change include being the Founder of; the XONITEK Group of Companies; the Operational Excellence Society; and the Readiness Institute.