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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Whose Responsibility Is It?

 I have a reflexive reaction when workers get blamed for problems in the workplace.  I have found that the vast majority of workers in a wide variety of workplaces do the best they can with the material, methods, machinery, and measurements that they are given to do the job.  Often they are severely lacking.  Material is of poor quality and doesn’t meet the specifications (sometimes the specifications don’t even meet the requirements). Machinery frequently jams, malfunctions or breaks down. They are not adequately instructed in the methods required or the reasons to follow them. Insufficient data, or the wrong data, is collected to give them the feedback that they need.

Often workers struggle.  Sometimes they get fed up. Instead of solving a problem or seeking help to solve it, the merely wait for someone else to do it.  They may have even been told that thinking about solving problems or improving the work is not their job.  If this goes on for long, bad habits develop. I have been in plants were it seems that most workers are chatting, drinking coffee, or reading a newspaper, rather than doing productive work.

Edwards Deming said often that the responsibility for solving problems and providing all the resources needed for work lies squarely on management. I agree.  Masaaki Imai points out that fixing blame does little to solve problems and much to interfere with problem solutions. People who risk being blamed are more likely to hide problems.  The manager who asks to understand what went wrong will get a lot more useful information than the one who wants to know who to blame.

If kaizen and lean practices are going to be successful, the bulk of the responsibility falls to management.  This isn’t to say that management knows how to do it. When I have involved General Managers and company Presidents in kaizen workshops (something which can be pretty hard to do, because they are too busy to devote that amount of time  to a workshop), I have often heard them say, “I had no idea.”

So, what do managers have to do?  They need to understand that their organization is a system.  There are flows of material in the system, with a lot of waste between one spot that adds value and another. A big waste is in-process inventory, often not including the material that is actually needed at the moment, because more than necessary of a different material has been produced.

The value adding stations require support around the Five Ms (People [formerly Manpower], Machines, Methods, Measurements, and Material.  Value adding fails, doesn’t get done, gets done wrong, produces poor quality, because one or more of these support systems have been inadequate.  The wrong person has been assigned to the job with inadequate training, or compensation has fallen down and affected morale.  The machines don’t work the way they are supposed to work because their is not an adequate preventive maintenance system.  When machines break down it takes a long time to get them up and running again. Standard methods (the best, easiest, safest ways) have not been developed, communicated, or improved, leaving an untrained worker to use her best judgment.  The worker is expected to “make do” with material that is of poor quality, of insufficient quantity, or not located conveniently.  Wrong things or no things are measured to inform everyone of how we are doing.  The worker does not know what is expected.  The supervisor can’t tell who needs the most help to get back on track.

I have barely scratched the surface here of the kinds of inadequacies that the support systems can present.  Some companies manage all of the support systems quite well.  An awful lot struggle from crisis to crisis, leaving no time to pay attention to the systems issues.