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I’ve been in manufacturing for over forty years now. Mostly automotive, but for the last 14 years: in white goods and restaurant equipment. I’ve been a plant manager making truck transmissions, Quality Director, head of Lean Manufacturing for a large international company, and now Global VP of Quality at another large company. And consulted for a number of global companies. So, I’ve had a lot of varied and interesting experiences. But when people ask me what the most important position I’ve ever held is, I always answer: Factory Worker.
"All of the knowledge contained on the shop floor is wasted if no one asks for it"
You see, for nine years I worked in a factory as a shop floor worker at an automotive remanufacturing plant. I couldn’t afford college and was hired the morning after my high school graduation. My first job was disassembling engines. Two months later, promoted to the receiving dock. Three months later, promoted to polish valve seats on cylinder heads. At this rate, I’d be running the place in a couple of years. Nope. Polished valve seats for four straight years. Then bored engine blocks for four more. Dirty, hot and monotonous work. But chock full of lessons for the business leader I was to become. And these lessons have a direct impact on your effectiveness as a Lean leader.
Lesson One: The Floor Knows Things You Don’t
No one is more expert in doing a job than the person doing it every day. My mind, and the mind of most of the people around me, was constantly buzzing with ideas to make the job more efficient and effective. A lot of it was self-serving: the work was grueling! Whether it was a better workflow or tools to make the job easier, we pretty much knew the things that could improve our work lives. And those things reduce turnover and increase quality and throughput.
Lesson Two: The Floor Will Tell You If You Ask
All of the knowledge contained on the shop floor is wasted if no one asks for it. I’ve found that the Floor is eager to speak. But as leaders, we have to provide a forum. Kaizen events have taken the place of suggestion boxes for channeling this wisdom into tangible improvements. But a lot can be learned by simply taking to time to ask people their opinions. And it’s a sincere show of respect that will be returned.
Lesson Three: The Floor Will Do It If You Explain Why
Those who think they understand the Floor might be surprised at how cynical workers become. A lot of eye rolling at the “Next New Thing.” They’re subjected to a lot of processes that are implemented without their input— processes that they know they could improve if asked. In my first job tearing down engines, I was told to stack the cylinder heads in a certain way. These things are heavy, weighing between 40 and 100 pounds. I, and everyone else who did this job, handled the heads roughly. And that rough handling created a lot of damage that had to be repaired by a welder. No one ever explained the consequences of that rough handling. So the assumption was that it was just something that management wanted us to do, but not really necessary. Today’s workers are more sophisticated than those in the past. They’re more systems literate than I was when I worked on the Floor. I’ve learned that the old “just do it” model really doesn’t work today. But if you explain what you want to do along with WHY it’s important, the response is dramatically better.
Lesson Four: Respect
Benefiting from the lessons above are predicated on sincere respect for the workers on the Floor. These folks have real lives. They are veterans, coaches, and beloved family members. And they deserve your respect.
Those are but four of many lessons from the shop floor. After my years of working in the factory (and what felt like a million years of night school), I got into the Quality Department and off the line. That’s been my main profession since 1987 and has opened the door to a lot of opportunities. But the foundation was laid at a former Ford assembly plant in downtown OKC learning from the smartest people in the building—the Floor.