Saturday, July 10, 2010

Why I Call It “Bringing Out the Best At Work”

In the early 1970s I was a graduate student at The Wright Institute. were I was the second student to be admitted to its Graduate School.  The first group of twelve students came together in 1970 into program was little more than a vision of the founders of the Institute.  We created the first curriculum and went across the street to the University of California Berkeley to recruit part-time faculty.
The Wright Institute Graduate School offered a Ph.D in Social-Clinical Psychology.  The idea was to integrate the two fields which did not communicate much to each other.  Graduates who became clinicians would have more awareness of the social contributors to mental health.  Some of us would become, in a sense, clinicians to organizations. 
In a clinical case seminar, a student was presenting his patient to the group and going on about various theoretical models.  The professor stopped him and asked, “What does the patient say the problem is?”
“She says her work is driving her crazy.”
“What does she do?” The class participants leaned forward to hear the answer.
“We haven’t gotten to that yet,” the blushing student therapist said.
This struck me.  We spend most of our waking lives at work. Surely psychology should take an interest in how work affects us emotionally.  Several of us students got together and started a seminar that we called “The Ecology of Work,” to explore how work affects people.
Since then my core interest has been:  How do organizations bring out the best in people, and how do people bring out the best in organizations?  I have also stated it as: How do organizations contribute to making people productive, and how do people contribute to making organizations productive. I am using the word productive in a more holistic and organic sense that number of pieces per labor-hour.  In both the person and the organization I mean being healthy and making contributions to society.  To be productive in this sense an organization has be productive in the more conventional sense and to be profitable.
My first opportunity to study and facilitate change in a factory came while I was still a graduate student.  I was one of the resident  third party staff in an experiment in cooperation between labor and management, the Bolivar Project.
Most of my career has been as an independent contractor, not as an employee. I learned a lot about industrial engineering and quality systems.  I taught courses in statistical process control, six sigma (before the days of colored belts), design for manufacturability, and problem solving, when training was the only field I could find that would put food on the table.
In the late 1980s I got involved with the Kaizen Institute of America.  In those days, and throughout the 1990s, practically all of the consultants at the Kaizen Institute were independent contractors. I deepened my understanding of  lean, just-in-time, and the kaizen approach to continuous improvement.  I had a chance to work under the guidance of Japanese sensei who had become experts through their careers in Toyota. My fellow contract consultants and I had a very collegial relationship. We all learned a great deal from each other and kept each other honest.
Throughout my career as a trainer and consultant, the ways organizations and people accommodate to each other have fascinated me.  Most of my consulting has been with kaizen and lean initiatives for the last twenty five years. In all of these endeavors, my “semi-secret agenda” has been to facilitate making work better for the workers.
The strategies that have grown out of the Toyota Production System and other Japanese automakers systems as well—Toyota is not the only company to develop lean strategies—are at their best excellent and central to workplaces that are healthy  with healthy people. Taiichi Ohno’s said, “Time is life.  We should not expect our people to come waste it at work.”  Eliminating waste can be and should be humanizing.  It is not always so, but it certainly can be.
This blog is designed to share some of my experiences, as they come to mind.  Even when I get somewhat “technical,” with OEE, takt time, cycle time, and SMED, my intent is to have healthy people in healthy workplaces be a connecting thread.
I don’t know it all. I hope to learn from my readers’ comments. Please let me know if you disagree with or question anything I have to say. Do you have experiences that can shed more light? Let’s develop some interesting dialogues.

Notes:  The Wright Institute has gone through some changes since my time.  It now offers a Psy.D rather than a Ph.D and the program appears to be heavily clinical. I have had no contact with the Institute in many years. The Bolivar Project provided interesting learning on several levels. The experiment fell apart after Sidney Harman, the CEO left.  For an interesting discussion see Joanne B. Ciulla, The Working Life (excerpt in Google Books


  1. very interesting thoughts.
    I eagerly read every word written here by you.
    i guess the trend to design work to make it interesting and value adding will increase as more and more work will be done by independent and individual contractors and less and less by employees. The organisations will become more virtual and everyone will work for himself or herself. The more the interesting work, the more willing the contributors will be.
    Would like to follow up your work in this area.


  2. I am not sure we will get to a point where everyone works for his or herself. People vary in their needs from work. I have liked independence and the opportunity to see work in many many different settings. Some people have a much greater need for security, and self employment does not offer as much security as some kinds of employment. I do think virtual organizations will continue to grow in number.