The Helping Organization


Capture d’écran 2021-02-05 à 13.51.20“Look at their eyes!” I remember one of my senseis trying to explain to me standard work. “Look at their hands. Look at their feet.” I was watching an operator on a line, pen and paper in hand, with a neat format to break down work into value added, transport, check, etc. – and seeing nothing.

The aim of the exercises was not to produce more detailed instructions to better program the human robot in performing the task in the one best way. I was to find the pain points in the work sequence and make the work easier.

Eyes to see where the person had to concentrate because he needed to focus, or because he needed to make a judgment. Hands to see where he struggled and flubbed the job. Feet to see why he had to move around looking for parts or tools rather than find them on hand – or worse, having to carry stuff back to his station.

Contrary to what I believed then, standardizing work was not a matter or detailing work instructions so that each worker did exactly the same. It was about making the work so intuitive and easy that each worker would perform every task fluidly, smoothly and seamlessly, so that in the end it would be done equally well in the same time – as we do with any routine task around us, such as brewing a cup of coffee.

The standard would not be the same for lefties or righties, for tall or short – it had to be adapted in small ways to each person. But some tricks would be the same for all, such as grab this part before this one, or use both hands here. Easy. Smooth. Seamless.

Decision points, such as part choices or quality checks were made to appear starkly, and with clear, visible criteria so that at a glance you could say whether it was okay or not. In some places, quality being a human feeling, more experienced people would need to feel whether the part was right or not.

Kaizen became inevitable. You struggle to pick up only two screws at a time from the box? How would you build a screw dispenser? You have to look for the electric screwdriver? How would you hang it in front of the workstation at the most convenient place? Let’s try your ideas. How can we help?

Organizations’ entire purpose is to help their customers. Organizations produce either products or services or knowledge:

  • Products to make you more autonomous: with a product in hand, you no longer need help to do something. With a desktop coffee maker, you no longer need to go down to the café to have the barista use the large machine to brew a cup. You can do it on your own, by yourself, in your own time.
  • Services to have someone do something for you: the hairdresser cuts your hair, the plumber fixes your sink, the insurer writes up you policies. Services require someone helping you to do something.
  • Knowledge (and entertainment): whether in books, films, reports, conferences, seminars, training, many organizations provide food for your brain, either as knowledge or as entertainment – often both.

To do so, they must be cost effective and better than the alternative of doing it yourself. So they organize labor: they divide by specialism, they find the lowest cost, then stitch together complex supply chains. Someone has to manage the mess all this organizing creates, so they have managers and specialists and people who write procedures. Then when something goes wrong, the managing heads get together and write some more procedures so that it doesn’t happen again, or put in place a computerized system that will control the process, and so on. Until the job itself becomes only a small part of the complex organization.

In the process, organizations also become perfect places for ambitious people to help themselves: there are careers to be built and money to be made. As they compete and race up the ladder, executives think less and less about customers (a vague, indistinct mass) and more about their status up the monkey tree, their power over their rivals, and who gets the big bonuses. As they look up, they forget to ever look down, to the people who do the real job.

The seed of lean was, back in the XIXth century a very simple idea: how can we make worker’s job easier? It grew into a second idea: how can we help workers in themselves making their jobs easier? Ultimately, the best way to help customers would be to help those that add value, task after task.

This also meant clarifying what needed to be done, which led to Kanban and being able to see the next job at hand without having to ask a boss. And Kanban revealed plenty of opportunities for kaizen as it showed how work stagnated here and there, or how management’s misconceptions, mostly born of cost accounting, created losses and wasted work. Kanban led specialized divisions to coordinate better and work more closely with each other at solving problems. Recognizing problems led to a deep understanding of the role of training in the business. Not surprisingly, such an approach generates a growing base of satisfied customers and an unprecedented stream of profits, while being frugal with materials and the environment. Lean thinking naturally leads to green thinking.

Real lean is first and foremost an ethical project – I am not talking here as Taylorism masquerading as “lean” where lean techniques are used to further exploit workers – in order to help customers, we need to help employees, and if we align employee fulfilment and corporate destiny, we will all thrive together.

Which makes lean a political project: which party do you want to join? The party of let’s take all the money we can out of the business now and who care about what happens later? Or the party of let’s focus on helping workers better serve customers, and they’ll reward us with steady profits? Because it will matter. As we face the massive challenges of the XXIst century with a fast-degrading environment, growing inequality and a stream of man-made catastrophes, we need to choose, as a society, what kind of capitalism we want. The “take the money and run” savage capitalism of shareholder value? Or the waste-free capitalism of respect and teamwork?

One thing lean experience shows is that, when confronted with unsolvable problems, if we add up and share local countermeasures and then get inspired and build on them, even if they first amount to not much, we can build a network of engaged people whose minds will spark and share and eventually come up with a radical, unlooked for solution that will change the world. Lean works better than any alternative, every time.

The entry ticket, however, is a commitment to help workers, not exploit them. Help in the most practical sense of looking at the pain points in their jobs, listening to their ideas and supporting them in building their own solutions. This is the true meaning of standard work. This is the true meaning of lean. It’s a verb, not a noun. It means: go and help make things easier.

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