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Bruce Hamilton


Lean Society

Our longstanding preoccupation with degrees, certificates, and belts

Published: Wednesday, August 23, 2017 - 12:02

“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.
George Orwell

The famous quote from George Orwell’s political allegory, Animal Farm, occurred to me recently as I listened to a design engineer explain to me how he was taught in college that engineers have a special responsibility to help their less able coworkers. Not intending to single out engineers or generalize from one data point, this example demonstrates what I observe to be a longstanding preoccupation with degrees, certificates, and belts. We may refer to employees on the front line as “value-adding,” but too often it’s the ones with letters after their names that we actually value.

In 1957, Peter Drucker dubbed the latter group knowledge workers, “high-level employees who apply theoretical and analytical knowledge, acquired through formal education,” thereby inadvertently differentiating the thinkers from the doers, the high level from the low level, the brain trust from the variable expense.

My personal experience with this distinction developed over a period of years as I changed jobs, first from marketing to IT and then to production. In the eyes of my fellow managers, I morphed in the process from an imaginative idea person into a brainy techno-geek and finally to a slow-witted grunt. The adjectives are important because they connote associated stereotypes. I joke that I started near the top and then worked my way down, IQ dropping along the way. Paradoxically, my knowledge of value and waste increased each time I got further from that theoretical and analytical knowledge and closer to the floor. John Shook noted at the 2016 Northeast LEAN Conference, the persons who do the work are the real knowledge workers, as they are the ones with a first-hand understanding of the work. (Incidentally, our 2017 Northeast Lean Conference is on the horizon. Check out the agenda.)

Whether in a factory or an office or an operating room, the knowledge is contained in the work. In that sense, all work should be knowledge work if we are thinking about it and trying to improve it. Steve Spear refers to lean transformation as “theory proven by practice.” Both are essential and should be inextricably linked. Our lean transformation should have room for both the theorists and the practitioners.

Unfortunately, when it comes to transformation, some employees are “more equal than others.” We favor the theorists and mostly ignore the practitioners. Perhaps our love affair with a college education and degrees and certificates and belts has baked in a two-class society where only a select few employees are heard and seen; the rest fall into that eighth waste category of “lost human creativity.” I’ve assembled a short list of nouns and adjectives commonly used to describe these classes. Can you think of others? Please share.


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.



One of my first managers opined that consultants made their money by coming into the plant, interviewing the workers as to how to fix problems and improve the operation, putting those answers into a buzz word laden document (in an impressive binder) and writing an invoice for six figures (at least).

I took that to heart and later made my reputation as a problem solver by asking the front line worker, "Hey man, what's the problem with this operation?" Once the "grunts" realized that "people" were listening to me, I became the recipient of many great unsolicited ideas. Synergy at its best!