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Bruce Hamilton


Us and Them

Take a they assessment

Published: Tuesday, October 20, 2020 - 12:03

Over years of listening to people describe their work, one single word has surfaced repeatedly as a barometer of what is frequently called “culture.” The use of the word “they” in conversation gives me insight into an organization’s ability to engage employees and sustain improvement.

The technical aspects of lean I can observe primarily with my eyes:
• The flow of material and information
• The stability, repeatability, and clarity of work
• Adherence to standards
• Alignment of resources to strategic objectives

These are artifacts, physical manifestations, of lean, and together they are necessary to an organization’s lean development. But alone, the technical efforts provide only a cursory understanding of culture. For example, too often I visit workplaces that exhibit evidence of lean tools and systems but are lacking a spirit of improvement. Deming Prize recipient Ryuji Fukuda refers to a “favorable environment” as a work atmosphere that supports employee participation and nourishes that spirit. This environment is not easily visible from the lean artifacts. In fact, organizations willing and able to spend money can create an appearance of lean, with no real change in culture at all. One large manufacturer I visited recently actually farms out improvement projects to subcontractors. They are outsourcing lean implementation—or so they think.

One word gives these companies away: they. It’s a word that refers variously to management, employees, other departments or divisions, external suppliers, boards of directors—any parties involved in the flow of goods and services to the customer. When I visit a company, I’m not only looking for the use of lean tools and systems; I’m also counting theys. Let’s call it a they assessment.

Sometimes they alludes to an adversarial relationship. “They don’t listen to us,” a nurse told me when I asked her about a scheduling snafu that left patients overflowing in a waiting room.

“Who are they?” I asked.

“The docs,” she said.

“All doctors?”

“Some more than others,” she replied.”

Notice that the pronoun they objectifies an entire group.

In other instances, they connotes a more passive separation: “They won’t support these changes” is a concern I hear often, and it could just as well be spoken by top managers or by employees, depending on frame of reference. When I’m speaking to a production department, support departments like IT or engineering are often in the they category. And the effect is reciprocal. If one function refers to another as they, the other department will always respond in kind.

They is a red flag word. It’s frequency and location of use in conversation paint a picture of the business environment: favorable or unfavorable. Organizations with a stronger lean culture will refer more frequently to “we” in describing their work. In one company, for example, assembly employees repeatedly referred to the engineering department as “we,” even though engineering was clearly a separate entity on the organizational chart. The same production department, however, referred to a subassembly department as they, even though both departments worked side by side in the same physical area. As organizations develop the favorable environment, they is incrementally replaced by we, the ideal condition being no theys at all. Short of that ideal, when I hear the word they, I note a relationship problem that is holding back the essential spirit of improvement.

Recently, I visited a company that was considering the Shingo Prize model as a template for company improvement. The plant manager greeted me in the lobby with these words: “We’d like to know more about the Shingo model and how it can help us improve. We feel like we’ve made a lot of improvement in the last five years but have hit a plateau.”

Indeed, there were technical challenges for this company that were apparent on a tour of the shop floor. Operational availability was still low and inventories still too high. But not a single they was spoken. In a company of several hundred people, from management to the factory floor, only “we” and “us” were heard.

I responded to the plant manager’s question: “The Shingo Prize model will certainly help your plant past its technical plateau, but as far as I can hear, your potential for improvement is very high.”

How would your plant fare with a they assessment? Which are toughest relationships to forge? Let me hear from you.


About The Author

Bruce Hamilton’s picture

Bruce Hamilton

Bruce Hamilton, president of the Greater Boston Manufacturing Partnership (GBMP), brings hands-on experience as a manager, teacher, and change agent. Prior to GBMP, Hamilton led efforts to transform United Electric Controls Co.’s production from a traditional batch factory to a single-piece-flow environment that has become an international showcase. Hamilton has spoken internationally on lean manufacturing, employee involvement, continuous improvement, and implementing change; and he has contributed to numerous texts ranging from visual control to variety reduction. Hamilton’s blog, Old Lean Dude, is an on-going reflection on lean philosophy and practices with an emphasis on keeping good jobs close to home.