Spagnollo - Ampulheta

Make Things Easy to Make Things Work

by Jeff Beardwood

Nobody shows up for work each day wanting to do a poor job. I sincerely believe that, and I think that’s a pretty radical theory in business today. Most right-thinking managers believe they need blanket supervision, charts and stats on production levels and stringent incentive programs to dangle a suitable carrot to entice the common worker into a performance which isn’t dismal.

I think that’s a recipe for self-fulfilling prophecy. As I said, most people show up wanting to do well in their daily tasks. It’s innate.

But we are all human. We all get discouraged. We all want to “keep up”. These are pressures which weigh on anyone on a daily basis, in a manufacturing job at least.

I know of a particular company that was feeling a tight financial pinch. Through circumstances which had more to do with the international economy than with their business efficiency, they were in a tough position. They decided they had to simultaneously reduce expenditures while increasing production. Economies of scale aside, any good economist will give the basic formula that costs rise along with throughput. The only exception to this is overhead, which should probably remain more or less static.

So the odds are stacked against this company in question to begin with. They circle the wagons by shrinking from four plants to two, but they hire vast numbers of people. They out-source some aspects of the business to save money, but they meet problems with both quality and on-time delivery. It’s all very predictable. Quality is the real killer. The material is poorer from the outside sources and the large percentage of poorly trained new employees means the number of mistakes skyrocket.

The inevitable meeting happens. They have to catch these problems earlier in the process. That opportunity can make the difference between being profitable or not. But even after the message is delivered, the piles of scrap soar.

What are they doing wrong? Am I wrong in my basic assumption that people want to do a good job? Here’s the answer I gave them.

“You have to make it easy for people to do the right thing.”

Huh?

You just became a worker on that particular industrial line for the sake of this explanation. A part comes down the line…you take it and run it. Something goes wrong. You’re new, you’re not really sure why it happened. It could have been the machine, operator error, the engineering, a phase in the process before your own. Whatever the cause, when you measure the part, something is wrong. Now what?

There is another piece behind this one coming down the line…this not so subtle pressure is the nature of the job. Quotas must be reached. In order to correct this problem, it will take a few moments investigation, probably stopping another operator to help you solve it. The line will stop. Then you need to track down a supervisor to replace the part. The unit that it belongs to is now incomplete until the replacement piece arrives, which can be a matter of minutes or days. (As mentioned, these kinds of errors are not isolated and the greater the volume the slower the replacements come.)

The right thing to do is to take the hit on being the one to stop the line, take the hit on your numbers and your shift’s numbers. You should solve the problem and replace the part as soon as possible. But there are so many problems like this, over and over.

The easy thing to do is to send it along down the line, hope no one else notices and stops it, and lets the unit pass out of your area before it stalls and goes on rework. It costs the company more in value added and makes late shipment a greater risk, but for the individual operator it is the immediately easier option.

The management’s challenge is to make it easier for people to do the right thing.

The specific solutions aren’t important. Perhaps it’s a matter of designating an experienced person as a floater/runner to step in at a word from the operator and take over the solution process, dealing both with getting the replacement expedited and with nailing down and addressing the root causes. Perhaps it’s a matter of seeing patterns of mistakes and improving training in those areas. Perhaps it’s a matter of peer accountability. Likely it is a combination of all of these things.

So why all of this explanation if the specific solutions aren’t important?

Because I recently had a conversation with someone about the state of our ecology which had a very familiar ring to it. Lots of people, who on the surface appear to be simply lazy, who aren’t accustomed to working with a new higher standard (let’s face it, our habits in the past for consumption and waste are no longer acceptable) are facing the choice between what is right and what is easy.

It seems to me the solution has to be very much the same as in the manufacturing plant I just discussed. I’m not an expert on ecology. I have much more experience with manufacturing. However, some people out there do have the knowledge to make the same kinds of adjustments I suggest.

As an example, perhaps you make recycling so simple an option that people have to make work for themselves not to do it. I’ve seen some places with that kind of set up, but they are too rare. This needs to be implemented on both a systemic and individual basis. There are more things wrong with the way we treat the planet than there are right. Pick one. Today. Figure out how to make it easier to do the right thing. Use fewer resources rather than more. Use cleaner resources rather than heavy pollutants. Tell someone else to try the same thing. There are better brains than mine out there, to whom the “right” answers on a larger scale will be more evident.

The key to the whole thing is to make those “right” things the path of least resistance for the average person, one simple step at a time. You don’t think it would work? Ask any first year marketing student just how well this proven technique works. Think back to your latest telemarketing call. “You can sign up for free,” they say. The catch is, if you don’t want to pay for what they are selling at the end of the free trial period you have to do work to prevent it. They will conveniently just go ahead and start billing you or taking the cost from your credit card. They count on people like you and me forgetting or not bothering to cancel the contract. These companies make money, lots of money, by simply making it easier to pay them. The path of least resistance is to do nothing and let them take their money. After all, it’s only a small amount. But small amounts add up. Your small part is important.

Why?

Just like this company I know, we on this planet desperately need to reduce expenditures (conserve our resources) while increasing our throughput (provide the necessities for life to an increasing world population). Remember the economists say costs usually rise along with throughput. We have our work cut out for us. The stakes are high as we face this difficult challenge. After all, the pressure we are under goes a lot deeper than maintaining profitability.