A Better Class of Prisoner

I attended a very nice presentation recently by a person who has been leading the Lean charge for several years at a major medical center.   As he reflected on key elements of his organization’s success, however, he made a statement that set off my crap detector:  “It’s most important to start with good people,” he said, “they are the key to success.”  While I think the comment was intended to compliment his Lean compatriots, I worry how it sounded to others in the audience and what it implied.   Is the secret to successful Lean implementation an adept talent recruitment program?  And what are the traits we are recruiting?   What is a good employee?

When I hear the phrase “good employees”, I think back to some early days in my own Lean journey.  I was moving into a role of VP of Manufacturing when a list was presented to me of employees who “would be trouble.”  I’d heard about these kinds of lists, but had never actually seen one and, until that point, thought that such lists were just the product of gossip.  But there it was.  No one wanted to take credit for creating it, but the supervisor who handed the list to me simply said I should “keep an eye on these folks.”  I thanked him for his concern, saying I would make up my own mind about people.

To be sure, the employees who “made the list” were outspoken about problems they saw, ranging from broken equipment to inequitable HR practices. They wondered, for example, why a factory employee had to work ten years to enjoy the same benefits that an office employee was given on their first day of employ.   Some were angry, a couple were occasionally belligerent.  One, who had been an assembler for twenty-seven years, complained that many assembly fixtures had been made for left-handed people because the model shop manager was left handed.   This “problem employee” began building assembly fixtures that worked on his own time, and eventually transitioned to that role full-time, helping everyone in assembly. He joked to me on one occasion, “Hey, you opened the cell door and let me out.”  Another of the potential “troublemakers” was a product tester with a reputation for criticizing management policy.  She commented to me once “Managers are people who sound like they know what they’re talking about even when they don’t.”  This person later became a full-time continuous improvement facilitator.

(Some years after that she and I were married – Mrs. Toast.) 

In fact, these employees mostly turned out to be the early challengers of the status quo.  They were dissatisfied, and not afraid to take a risk to change it.   Were they the good employees to whom my speaker was referring?

On the day in 1985 that the notorious list of troublemakers was passed along to me, I scanned it and wondered to myself what types of employees these were, to be singled out.  Were these the persons responsible for the poor condition of the factory whose leadership I had just inherited?   Then, I recalled a quote from Lester Maddox,  a former, not-so-esteemed governor of Georgia from the late 1960’s.   When asked about the deplorable state of the Georgia state prison system, Governor Maddox lamented that conditions in the prisons would not improve until there was a better class of prisoner.

Is your organization looking for a better class of prisoner or are you
just opening the cell doors?    Share a story from your organization.


This entry was posted in old lean dude on October 25 , 2012.