Help Workers Get What They Need

John Crossan

If you are like me, you've listened to the Rolling Stones over the years. Their contemporaries, the Beatles, became more artistic and lyrical as they evolved, but for driving party music, the Stones are still hard for any band to beat.

I even heard the words to one of their songs quoted recently: "You can't always get what you want." This much I already knew, but what follows has a lot of meaning in continuous improvement: "But if you try sometime, you might find you get what you need."

So many times in problem-solving work, you do all of the analysis with the really smart, expert people and come to what you truly believe is the right answer — one that you really want to work. But then you find when you implement it, "You know, it just didn't work," or "It just didn't last," or "Nobody would buy into it."

Most people tend to get hung up on what they want rather than what they need. They want their elegant solution to work. They fall in love with it. For engineers, this is usually the technical solution. Having found that perfect solution, well, let's not waste any time getting it in place. Forget all of that soft-skills stuff; just make people do it now.

For some, change management is simply convincing people to do things that, for various reasons, they don't seem to want to do.

Others have talked of the frustrations and time consumed in hunting down and eliminating the wily, elusive, supposed single root cause, as opposed to just implementing some of the many solutions to various, fairly obvious contributing causes that just make things quickly better. This isn't saying that structured analysis isn't necessary, but rather that it's not the biggest part of fixing or improving.

Unfortunately, because they tend to address fundamental issues, too many of the "best" solutions become larger, which usually means expensive and time consuming. That's also frustrating, as managers will usually push back at the thought of expensive.

I remember a problem that was aggravating and constantly frustrating plant personnel (as well as affecting productivity and quality) that could have been fixed for about $2,000. The solution had been developed with some help, but there was another, much more extensive engineering project in the works with a price tag of $80,000 that also would have taken care of that problem, among other things, so why spend the $2,000? Besides, adding in the fix on the small issue would help justify the big project.

Unfortunately, after a number of months of management pushing back, the $80,000 project was abandoned. Sadly, the $2,000 project seemed to have been forgotten by then. Months of productivity and an opportunity to build some ownership were lost. It was their solution; they would have made it work. Instead, there was ongoing frustration at the needless waste and at being ignored. Of course, management again paid the price of being tagged with "too cheap to do the right thing."

The real trick in all of this is finding the way to "what we need." So, what is missing? What do you have to "try sometime?"

Well, how about listening to people? How about giving them the opportunities to make changes? How about helping them rather than telling them? Amazingly, people really know a lot about what the issues are and how to deal with them if asked and given the opportunity rather than being pushed aside while the experts deal with it.

Implement a process that uses communication to build ownership. This doesn't just happen, and you can't just do it now and again when you have some time. It takes a routine, everyday, structured process that will go on forever. Issues and improvements are identified and discussed. Actions (including communication) are decided on, along with any necessary follow-up.

The daily, small-unit shift exchange meetings can be the most powerful way to get this to happen. It also takes the involvement of supervision, maintenance personnel and even engineers to get to what you need. Although people know what they need, they usually require some help getting there and are typically receptive to genuine attempts to assist them. Engineers and managers are there to help people find their way to the right answers and, in doing that, develop to their potential.

Remember, the right approach is not to get people to do things that they probably don't want to do, but just to help them get to what they need.

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About the Author

Currently working as a consultant, John Crossan retired after spending 30-plus years with the Clorox Company. His roles for much of the past 14 years were mainly focused on improving operations ...