Meaningful work for everyone ? Sorry…Lean can’t do that yet ! | John Dennis | LinkedIn

“It is disrespectful to workers for Management to make promises that they cannot deliver on. However there are presently some academics and authors in the Lean community who say that Lean transformation should provide ‘Meaningful Work’ for all workers. This phrase is setting too high an expectation for our workers…that we will not be able to deliver on…”

Sourced through LinkedIn

Michel Baudin‘s comments: I agree. Just Another Car Factory? Lean Production and Its Discontents is a chronicle of the early years of CAMI, a GM-Suzuki joint venture in Canada, which describes labor problems as due to management overselling Lean to production operators. As a manager, it’s one thing to overpromise to your superiors and another to shop floor operators. They don’t react the same way. Superiors reward you for setting “stretch goals,” and punish you if you only commit to what you can deliver. It’s the project game, as it has been played by generations in American managers. With shop floor operators, on the other hand, you lose your credibility and your ability to lead.

There is nothing you can do to turn a job in which you repeat the same 60 seconds of activity 400 times a day into “meaningful work.” You can make it easier and safer, you can mitigate the monotony by rotating operators between stations every two hours, and you can involve operators in Kaizen,… All of this improves both the performance of the production line and the experience of working on it, but it still won’t make working on an assembly line the kind of jobs kids dream of doing when they grow up. Dennis is right to say that overpromising to workers is disrespectful. They can handle the truth.

11 comments on “Meaningful work for everyone ? Sorry…Lean can’t do that yet ! | John Dennis | LinkedIn

  1. The work might not be meaningful to everybody. It depends. Building Harleys and doing repetitive work might be incredibly meaningful if the worker loves Harleys and the people who ride them.

    I’m not sure who John Dennis says is promising that all work can meaningful to every person. His post seems like it’s built upon a bit of a straw man.

    Even if the work itself isn’t meaningful, I’ve seen people find great joy in Kaizen and being creative through improvement activity.

    John Dennis didn’t touch on that.

    Your thoughts, Michel?

    • When I read Dennis’s post, it reminded me immediately of the CAMI case, as described in the book I cited. To be fair, this book only presents the case from the point of view of the workers and their union, not management, and there are many parts of it that I remember reading with skepticism. The idea that management got off on the wrong foot with the workers by over-promising on Lean, however, rang true. This was 20 years ago. Three days ago, in his Gemba Coach column, Michael Ballé wrote “Management can commit to creating the conditions for meaningful work in every job, at all levels.”

      What you are saying about Harley is that attachment to and pride in the final product is a strong motivator. Shortly after a team I worked with at Boeing gave me a briefcase from the employee store with the Boeing logo on it, a flight attendant noticed it and said “You guys make good planes.” As a consultant, I hadn’t earned that praise, but I understand what it can do for employees at all levels. It doesn’t, however, make a production line job rise to the level of meaning that it has for a craftsman who builds a product from start to finish.

      Yes, people can find joy in Kaizen but, when they are not doing Kaizen, they are still repeating the same motions on a sliver of the process within the takt time, and the clock’s hands move slowly while they do it. Over the coming decades, I think this kind of jobs will gradually vanish, and that the remaining manufacturing jobs will be intrinsically more meaningful.

  2. I’m still curious who he means when he says, “However there are presently some academics and authors in the Lean community who say that Lean transformation should provide ‘Meaningful Work’ for all workers.” because it still seems like a straw man.

    Meaningful is a spectrum. Work can be more meaningful perhaps. Maybe the a phrase like “less oppressive” is more accurate. No work is ever going to be perfectly meaningful (is that possible?).

    I’m just not sure what he’s complaining about.

  3. The dictionary defines meaningful as “having a meaning or purpose.”

    I don’t think that’s too much to promise.

    Saying Lean can make work more meaningful isn’t promising a perfect workplace. I don’t see how it’s over promising or how it’s disrespectful somehow.

    I don’t know the CAMI case. I’ll read about it.

    • Making it “more meaningful” is less ambitious than making it meaningful. You start from a production operator executing a sliver of a process without any say about methods or knowledge of what it accomplishes, or how it fits with what others do. You may make the job less meaningless, but it still will not compare with the experience of a craftsman making, say, a violin from pieces of wood and delivering it personally to a musician. We should not pretend that it will.

  4. Whenever an organisation is embarking on a Lean transformation, there is a call for guarantees and promises from Leadership: nobody loses their job, more meaningful work, etc. And too many Leaders, well intentioned, get sucked in: it’s great to give assurances, but how real are they.

    “There are no promises and guarantees, because no Leader could truly make them, and, anyone believing them also believes in Santa Claus. There is just a reality. Somewhere in the world, maybe next door to us, a company is working to be better than us, to take our market share. This is what we can control: by being better, by being Lean, al the time. Does that mean our jobs will be more meaningful or secure? No, but it gives us a far, far better chance than believing in fanciful promises and keeping status quo!”.

  5. Lean or not, we should recruit to seek and select people who have the innate strengths for the role. Well selected workers are more likely to be fulfilled by the work. Training well selected workers is less wasteful than trying to impart skills and knowledge on workers who lack the innate abilities, strengths or sense of purpose.

    We should avoid making promises we cannot keep but more meaningful work may be aided by an effective recruiting process.

  6. Taiichi Ohno’s principle on TPS is respect for people. The intended meaning is to make the workers add value to the work without creating Muda. This can be done continuously by constantly eliminating the waste through Kaizen.

    Instead if the worker is making unnecessary movement/walking/searching /waiting etc or just become watching the machine at the end of the day he make money but may be satisfied in his job as his creativity is not used.

    Instead if he does not make Muda and at the same time if he gets time to do Kaizen in his job even though it is repetitive he will enjoy his work. So Job = Work+Kaizen.I agree managers sometimes oversell the lean to get the best results but the financial/social benefit derived out of lean is not shared to the worker who has put enough effort but still get low salary than the supervisors.

    So the role of Top management and middle management is to build a harmonious environment which contributes to develop team work culture and motivate the team, share the benefits in a transparent way. In such cases even though it is assembly line if the worker can contribute and grow in the organisation he will be satisfied. In many organisation creating such mutual trust is a big challenge.

  7. Should I say it? Meaningful has a different meaning for different people. Some people may find meaning and joy in repetitive work although I agree that there are many who don’t. Are only skilled craft jobs or creative and intellectual jobs meaningful?

  8. As I read Dennis’s article, I see him as concerned not about what the Lean implementation actually achieves but about discrepancies between promises and achievements.

    Substantial achievements can be poorly received by people who feel that they had been promised something far better.

  9. Hi All,

    Seems to me that there’s a great deal of subjectivity underlying all the comments – including the initial commentary by Dennis. What do I mean by subjectivity? By definition, it subjectivity pertains to the way a person experiences things in his or her own mind. : based on feelings or opinions rather than facts. Clearly, based on Michel’s subjective interpretation of the the words “more meaningful work,” they equate to a craftsman-oriented experience where specialized and often difficult-to-acquire/develop skills are being employed to create something of intended value.
    And as Mark points out in contrast, the actual/real interpretation of the phrase “meaningful work” should be left to the mind/perception of the doer.

    In fact, the key issue is NOT in how to interpret the intent behind the words. If they are employed by Management as part of a misguided/superficial motivational message being mindlessly or naively parroted by one or more Management representatives then there’s a significant likelihood that the expectations being created (in the minds of the stakeholders receiving the message) will eventually be misaligned with the realities the work environment. From an idealist perspective (which I tend to subscribe to), the most desirable outcome of a TRUE LEAN implementation is a improved state-of-being for the stakeholders. And the more “in control” of how and why that state-of-being evolves (from both a kaizen and a kairyo perspective) the greater the chances for realizing an outcome that’s more closely aligned with the intent underlying the words “more meaningful work.”

    INFORMED AND KNOWLEDGEABLE MANAGEMENT is more likely to be tuned into the ramifications of pursuing TRUE LEAN THINKING AND BEHAVING and take into consideration the need for “enriching” the work ENVIRONMENT. Simply by providing opportunities to do so – in keeping with the near and longer-term objectives of the organization – opens the door to building (and sustaining) a more meaningful/enriched work environment. Incorporating practices such as job rotation, cross-skilling/training (i.e., expanded competency development), and team-based problem-solving are but a few of the avenues that can be taken in creating a more meaningful work environment.

    At least for the foreseeable future, the chances of creating jobs whose daily activities reflect a pattern and level of engagement that hearkens back to a time when craftsmen/women were able to practice a trade or “profession” are slim. However, with the advent of technologies that represent new opportunities for pursuing new production paradigms, the opportunities for creating more meaningful work environments may be increasing. But even as technology advancement influences the way work is performed, there is a constant/prevailing across the vast majority of businesses and work environments to create more meaningful, engaging and value-adding roles – across multiple disciplines and skill profiles – by pursing a more integrated, multi-disciplinary/cross-functional, team-based approaches to delivering value to targeted customers. TRUE LEAN THINKING AND BEHAVING recognizes this fact and looks to transform organizations in the most holistic and systems-thinking manner possible.

    NO… such an approach CANNOT be as quickly introduced and put into action as a purely tool-oriented approach to improving performance. YES… putting this more holistic/systems-oriented approach – to achieving and sustaining higher-order levels of system-wide performance – into action takes a great deal more time and effort and MANAGEMENT ENGAGEMENT/COMMITMENT than simply espousing rote platitudes and subsequently rolling out a kaizen program, but the higher-order end results that can be achieved will justify the investment. More specifically, today’s and tomorrow’s organizations (including their LEADERS) need to focus on building and sustaining more horizontally-oriented (i.e., cross-functional) and rapidly-adaptive, value-adding capabilities than can possibly exist in today’s prevailing (aka same-ol, same-ol), vertically-oriented (aka rigidly siloed), organizational structures. And by doing so, as I stated earlier, the door will be opened much wider to engaging all stakeholders in creating a more meaningful (albeit also more challenging) work environment.

Please share your thoughts: