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Bruce Hamilton

Six Sigma

The Ear of the Beholder

Confusion arises when we fear what we think we hear

Published: Monday, November 21, 2011 - 16:20

A short time after I moved into operations as the vice president of manufacturing, our assembly department made an early and, dare I say, imperfect attempt to realign the factory floor for ease-of-material delivery and pick up. I would not describe this as improved flow because we were still delivering heaping piles of kitted orders to the factory by the pallet-load.

At best, this was a superficial improvement to widen the conveyance lanes and keep the pallet jack from knocking into the workbenches. But very early in the improvement process, as a new kid in town, I was taking some satisfaction that we had made any change to free up our clogged arteries.

After several days of operating with this change, I approached a production employee with the question, “Vahram, what do you think of the new layout?”

Vahram answered back to me, “I like my job!”

Not exactly the answer I was looking for, but I took it as a positive opinion and responded, “Thank you, I’m happy to hear that.” There were seven different languages spoken in our factory, and English was a second language for many employees, so short interchanges like this were normal. What was not normal, however, was the concern that showed on his face as he answered me. I asked him, “Are you sure? Is there a problem?”

He tried to smile as he responded once more, “I like my job.”

“OK,” I said. “I’ll see you later.”

Several hours later the employee’s supervisor approached me with this concern: “There’s a rumor going around in the plant that there’s going to be a layoff.”

I groaned. “Great. Where would a rumor like that come from?”

“Well, Vahram said you told him that there was going to be a new layoff and then said that he was a problem,” answered the supervisor. “He said you’d be coming back later to fire him.”

I think I let out a faint yelp as I heard this, half laugh and half gasp. “I didn’t say anything like that!” I explained. “I only asked him how he liked the new layout.”

“Well, Vahram is good man,” responded the supervisor. “I hope I’ll have something to say if there’s going to be a layoff.”

“There’s not going to be any layoff!” I exclaimed. I was startled that Vahram misunderstood me, and now more startled that the supervisor was not hearing my explanation. The factory was buzzing with anxious rumors based upon what I had thought was a friendly exchange. I accompanied the supervisor, who unlike me was multilingual, to apologize to Vahram for the misunderstanding. I realized during this exchange, however, that the primary reason for the confusion was not language, but predisposal: Neither Vahram nor his supervisor had anticipated an interrogative statement from the boss. They both took it as declarative. In short, they didn’t know me, and they didn’t trust me. I was a new kid in town, but to them I was just more of the same. Another boss.

As the cliché goes, “Actions speak louder than words.” Over a period of months and years, I worked to earn their trust, but I don’t think the layout/layoff confusion was ever completely clarified. What I had said was never recorded or witnessed by anyone other than Vahram and me, but what he heard had impacted the anxiety and output of the factory for several days.


About a week later I heard this version of the incident, which had been circulating in the plant: “Bruce was planning to layoff Vahram, but Vahram’s supervisor spoke on his behalf, so Bruce changed his mind.”

How is the communication in your business, between departments, between management and workers, between your organization and your suppliers, or between divisions within your company? And what do you think this story has to do with the Toyota Production System? Please share your thoughts.


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.