New Roles Of Workers In The Lean Environment

Traditionally, supervisors identified and solved problems, made critical decisions and ensured all work was completed in a timely and accurate manner. But today’s supervisors must spend more time planning the improvements required to make their organizations leaner and more responsive.

Columns From: 9/1/2004 Modern Machine Shop,

Traditionally, supervisors identified and solved problems, made critical decisions and ensured all work was completed in a timely and accurate manner. But today’s supervisors must spend more time planning the improvements required to make their organizations leaner and more responsive. This means the role of the worker in the manufacturing organization must also change. No longer can workers sit back and be told what to do, how to do it and when it needs to be done. Instead, today’s manufacturing workforce must be relied upon to accept increased responsibility for management.

What is the motivation for today’s worker to accept greater responsibility? Let’s start with self-preservation. At some point, every manufacturing worker has expressed concern about losing his or her job to lower-cost competitors. Although workers do not have complete control of the market’s economics, they can choose between doing things the way they have always been done and being part of a new change. For those who accept the need for change, the odds of remaining competitive and retaining jobs increase dramatically. 

What are the challenges facing today’s manufacturing workers? Consider the following six abilities that are essential for a lean manufacturing worker to possess:

  1. Willingness to learn new skills. The ability to perform a variety of tasks is key to flexibility, which is critical in the lean enterprise. Being willing to participate in cross training efforts, where workers learn and teach new skills, is the first step. In addition, accepting different types of responsibilities, which may have previously belonged to supervisors, may be required. Tasks such as machine and equipment troubleshooting and problem solving, data collection and analysis, and production scheduling are typical of the tasks workers may face. As workers learn more skills and accept more responsibilities, they will be less reliant on others and more valuable to the organization.
  2. Offer ideas for improvement. We all recognize that management does not have all the answers and must frequently rely on the workers to find ways to make things better. Instead of just “the usual few” workers offering ideas, this type of effort is required of everyone. Whether it is an idea for eliminating waste in an operation, simplifying scheduling, combining operations to improve throughput time or an entirely different approach to making a part, every worker must recognize the importance of contributing something.
  3. Make decisions. There are risks associated with all decisions, and decision-making is a skill that improves with practice. Yet often, the worst decision is no decision at all. Other than decisions that involve worker safety, there are very few decisions that, if proven unworkable, cannot be undone later. Workers must gain the confidence to make decisions in the workplace and strive to be right at least 51 percent of the time.
  4. Share responsibility for implementing change. Management can no longer be the sole driver of change, and therefore, workers cannot sit back and take a wait-and-see approach. Once a consensus is achieved to change something, everyone must buy in and strive for success. Passive behavior and the “blame game” must be discouraged. Giving less than the best effort to ensure a successful transition is a missed opportunity that may not present itself again.
  5. Support continuous improvement. What was good enough last year, or even last month, may not be enough today. Even things that seem to be working well can (and often must) be made better. Competitors are learning the same improvement techniques as you are, and often, it is a race to see who can improve faster. Remember that if your competitors get better, you are likely to get worse.
  6. Motivate peers who “don’t get it.” Every company has a certain (hopefully small) percentage of workers who just “don’t get it.” These workers do not understand the importance of change and are perfectly happy with the status quo. Many will openly resist even the most obvious and essential changes. Unfortunately, if not addressed, such workers can adversely affect an organization. It is the responsibility of everyone, not just management, to help employees see the benefits associated with progression. Peers who do “get it” can offer these workers credible reasons for change. Ongoing resistance and obstruction of change cannot be tolerated in the lean enterprise. Often, all it takes is some gentle peer pressure to modify this behavior.

Accepting these changes can lead to a more effective, customer-focused organization with high employee morale—a “win/win” proposition.

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