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Bruce Hamilton


Moving Mountains: It's About Employee Involvement

Lose the dynamite, pick up a shovel

Published: Monday, August 29, 2011 - 11:55

I was listening to Alan Robinson present recently at the Lean Systems Summit about the power of “small ideas.” Alan wondered aloud why so many organizations continue to pursue the few million-dollar ideas while small ideas account for more than 75 percent of the innovation outcome.

I reflected on a conversation I’d had several weeks earlier with a client, call him Bob, who was struggling with his lean journey.

“I can’t see how we’ll ever make a significant improvement,” Bob remarked. “Doing anything around here is like moving mountains.”

“How would you go about moving that mountain?” I asked.

“I’d blast,” Bob said with a smile.

I think that is the answer to Alan Robinson’s question: When presented with an obstacle, managers are trained to “blast.” We are paid to get things done; the bigger the obstacle, the more explosives.

The challenge with lean transformation is that, given a choice between dynamite and a large group of people with shovels, most managers will choose the former to get the result. The results we target are tangible and necessary for the organization’s health: dramatic quality, cost, and delivery (QCD) improvement are the promise of lean. Why not cordon off the area to be improved, and ask the troops with the shovels to step to a safe area while we send in our special forces to blast away? The troops can return afterward to clean up. Sound familiar?

“Why would you blast?” I asked Bob.

“Because our management says it needs to be done by Friday,” he said. “They’re looking for a report out then with hard numbers for results.”

“And would one of those results be level of employee participation?” I asked.

“Not really,” Bob replied.

The problem with this approach is that if we treat the workplace like a war zone, employees will run for cover when they see change approaching. “Keep a low profile, and they leave you alone,” one employee confided in me. When that occurs we have failed to achieve the most important, if intangible, result: employee creativity. The 75 percent of innovation that Alan Robinson is describing actually requires many people with shovels.

How many folks in your organization are shoveling? 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.



Bruce - great piece. I've been a big fan of Robinson and Schroeder's work on employee ideas and continuous improvement. My co-author and I are referencing them in our upcoming book on "healthcare kaizen." My co-author's hospital in Indiana has been focused on "quick and easy kaizen" for the past 5 years or so and there are great results, financial and otherwise. There are other hospitals, including ThedaCare and Virginia Mason, who have incorporated daily continuous improvement into their Lean approach along with the weeklong improvement events.