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Mike Micklewright

Quality Insider


All for one, one for waste

Published: Tuesday, May 11, 2010 - 08:55


K, so I used this title as an attention grabber. I’m sure that I’ve already upset some people with this title and they will proclaim to never read my column or newsletter again… at least until the next edition. You should know me by now.  When I want to make a point I sometimes get a little sarcastic.  But, I’ve got a very important point to make here about unions.

As we gather for our summer barbecues over the next several months and discuss the business woes of the world, someone’s father-in-law or other cranky old guy will state, after making sure that cousin Bob (the union electrician) is not within earshot,  “You know, unions were needed at one time in this country, but not any more. They’re screwing up our country… and the weather too.”

Let’s face it, back in the day, management did treat employees poorly. People were worked to the bone, without concern for their safety, as long as they were older than eight years old. Companies did not respect them! But over time, many of us realized that unions weren't needed any more. They had become a wasteful, bureaucratic mess—much more so than the management systems that they were supposed to fight against.

When I worked at Saturn, I remember the requirement that there must be one United Autoworker (UAW) counterpart for each person in management. How can a company be competitive in that environment?

But ask yourself, “Are unions really not needed anymore? Do we now fully respect our employees?” I wonder about this not only to scare management, but perhaps to create some change in Western management styles.

Yes, unions are wasteful; very wasteful. In this era of lean, I shudder to think of the waste we have in our organizations. No wonder we ship all of our production overseas—we have too much waste in our systems, and a lot of it resides in the fact that we have too many unions. But like all of our waste, unions came into being as a resolution to poor management practices after the people revolted.

Remember that the preamble to the United States Constitution states, “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union….” Our founding fathers formed the first union, and we revere them.  They formed a union to replace a tyranny.  It’s in our blood to stand up for what we believe. It’s in our blood to fight for our freedom. It’s part of the American way.  I admire those who stood up and formed the first company unions, because so many of those leaders were immigrants who decided to live up to the American ideals and help themselves in their pursuit of happiness. They were like our founding fathers.

The “United” (a form of union) States of America and the “United” Auto Workers (as an example), were born out of crises based on systems that disrespected either the citizens of a new country or the employees of a new company, respectively. The USA and UAW were born from “taxation without representation” and “horrid working conditions without representation,” respectively.

So why does the word “union” carry such a negative connotation to some? Why do so many people in business despise the term? Perhaps the problem is that the United States was not a band-aid; it was an ultimate solution. The U.S. Constitution and the American Revolution eliminated the root cause of our ills at the time—it eliminated a tyrannical government full of tyrannical systems, including taxing its citizens on American soil who had no voice when it came to the tax laws, percentages, the system itself, and the officials who developed and enacted the laws.

On the other hand, unions should never have been an ultimate solution. The unions didn't replace management, nor could they have. They were just band-aids to cure poor management practices and demand some level of respect for the employees. In the ideal world, the union should have been a short-term fix (or a containment action, an immediate action, or an interim action, as we call it in the quality world).  The unions should have been a band-aid that got ripped off as soon as the root causes in management practices were eliminated. But they never were pulled off because the practices were never eliminated. The union band-aid, like the inspection and inventory band-aids that result from not getting to the root causes of our problems, grew bigger and bigger as the wounds beneath the band-aids began to fester and ooze with more problems.

And then the unions themselves became wasteful. An old UAW buddy of mine from Saturn once said that it was more difficult to work with UAW management than regular management. I joked with him about the necessity to start a “Union Union” or the “Double U” to fight for the people’s rights taken away from them by their union.

So we might be tempted to think,  “We don’t need unions anymore. We are much better than we were. Unions are wasteful.”

But if unions were the band-aids to the problem of not respecting employees, have we really ridded ourselves of that problem? Do we respect employees so much that the band-aids are no longer necessary? Have we evolved from the management systems of many decades ago that had no respect for employees to systems of total respect for employees? Is it really that black and white? Do we really not need unions, perhaps even as a band-aid that acts as a containment action, until we improve our management systems and truly respect our employees? Or do we need true change in our management systems and the elimination of practices that continue to disrespect our employees, such as:

1) Suggestion systems in which some employees can participate and some cannot. In these systems, an idea is thrown into a box by a suggester, to be reviewed by a separate committee perhaps a month or two later. A suggester might be given feedback a couple of months later, if at all, and the idea might be enacted without the suggester’s involvement, and a paltry sum of money might be rewarded to the employee (but far less than what had been expected).

2) Annual performance appraisal systems that treat adults as children through forced ranking systems utilized in a big ol’ batch at the end of the year by command and control managers, as Tripp Babbitt described in the article, “The Needs of the Many Outrank the Needs of the Few”. 

3) Systems in which people who own special colored belts come in and resolve all of your problems.

4) Quota systems to drive increased performance with little or no respect for quality (See "Quotality!" article).

5) Probationary systems. 

6) The “get as much out the door before the end of the month as possible” attitude, taking away one’s pride in work.

7) Management never visiting operations and asking the people how they can help them improve.  Management never watching or participating in the process.

8) Making capital investment decisions based solely on return on investment.

9) Managers who tell people what to do “because I’m the boss” rather than using one’s knowledge and tact.

10) A management system that encourages managers to tell people what to do, not why it is important.

11) A management by objective system in which the objectives, not leadership, become most important.

12) Reward systems for suggestions and employee of the quarter/month rewards that take away one’s intrinsic desire to improve and innovate.

13) Micromanagement

14) Managers who are not taught how to lead and teach.


Unions are not the answer for eliminating disrespect of the employees. They're wasteful.  Management, however, needs to stop any desire for employees to unionize by building in systems of respect for the employees and eliminating those systems that continue to disrespect the employees.

We still have a long way to go in Western management.


About The Author

Mike Micklewright’s picture

Mike Micklewright

Mike Micklewright has been teaching and facilitating quality and lean principles worldwide for more than 25 years. He specializes in creating lean and continuous improvement cultures, and has implemented continuous improvement systems and facilitated kaizen/Six Sigma events in hundreds of organizations in the aerospace, automotive, entertainment, manufacturing, food, healthcare, and warehousing industries. Micklewright is the U.S. director and senior consultant for Kaizen Institute. He has an engineering degree from the University of Illinois, and he is ASQ-certified as a Six Sigma Black Belt, quality auditor, quality engineer, manager of quality/operational excellence, and supply chain analyst.

Micklewright hosts a video training series by Kaizen Institute on integrating lean and quality management systems in order to reduce waste.


Playing the respect card

Nice reference to the skirt Rob. But I suppose some of them don’t know how to wear it because they don’t know how to deal with the other half who don’t wear the skirt. This element resent the skirt no matter who wears it and will do anything to undermine the success of the skirt.
And I think Mike has provided us some prime examples. In fact the biggest one stands out without even getting to his numbered examples: The biggest example of undermining the success of the manager is to play the respect card. Let’s look at just a couple examples from a different point of view.
1- suggestion systems exist because people do not consider it their duty to try and improve things. Because they have a sense of entitlement that says there is some kind of bad deal if they do not get something. The union creates and supports the sense of entitlement.
2- The “get as much out the door before the end of the month as possible” attitude, taking away one’s pride in work. – Now whose pride in their work is so small that they let it get taken away by an external factor? I know lot’s of union employees. Those that have real pride in their work don’t let this happen. That’s what pride is. Only those that are looking for something to complain about let this happen.

Where Do Leaders Come From?

Mike, I enjoyed your first book, and Lean ISO 9001 is even better. We are using it as design input for the next major release of our product, good stuff.

I couldn't agree more about unions, although if management has made progress, why is Dilbert so funny? In fact, I've often wondered how management gets to be management. I mean someone has to say to themselves, "let's put this person in charge." I can't imagine making an argument that most of the time that process is based on leadership skills. In fact, it seems to me like good leaders are the exception rather than the rule.

Why is that? How many venture capitalist are calling you and saying, "Mike, you wrote the book, you obviously have the knowledge and principles down to make a good leader. We want you to run this start up for us."

Do you get a lot of calls like that? It seems like you should, but if you don't, I wonder why not?

David Smithstein, Founder and CEO
Lean & Mean Business Systems, Inc.


Hi Mike,
Boy do you know how to press my buttons. I could not have said what you have here any better. You reflect all my thinking re the continued existance of Unions. It has been my experience that wherever the Union is strong that the management team are office dewllers and manage from behind a desk. On one occasion when challenging one of these imortal souls they produced a text book and quoted from it. On another occasion a piece of paper appeared on everyones desk as "Do you have the right kit?" No one knew what was meant by this and after some research it was discovered that this form was a photo copy out of some management text book! What he was really asking was did we have the right equipment and resourses to do what we had to do.
Desk jockeys no less. But hey they had been appointed as managers therefore they must have management skills. Just how wrong can one be?
Unions still exist today because management does not do the right thing. Witness here the enormous salaries paid to bank executives or telco giants. Show me the man that is worth $8,000,000 a year. I I will show you just how little this man does for his money. We need to ask the union question and that is just who does earn the monies? Yes it is usually the coalface worker not the chief executive, supprise supprise. As an auditor I found it an eye opener to perform a quality system audit in a large company where the responsibility for "quality" was delegated. Working in this environment only demonstrated to me at least that there are very few managers. I mean real managers.
It seems when one becomes a manager then this is the time to disassociate from staff, staff do what they are told and I'm the teller. If then we look at this situation where a number of staff are employed it would not be uncommon to find that they were all members of a Union. What a supprise. Big business has grown up with the confrontation of the Union and so they accept that it will always be confrontational and thats the way it is.
When in truth the existance of the union is usually a pointer to poor management practice.
You are also on the money when talking about professional development. Essentially we do these to gain a tick in a box just to prove how good we are as managers. Have you done your PADs yet? Yes, how many have you done ? About 30%
Management now issue the order to complete all PADS. The system shows all PADS are completed. The Quality Manager reports to the executive that the numbers are good and that all PADS have been completed.

No one asks the staff member what they thought of their PAD and was it mutally beneficial? How many CEOs check with their front line on a one on one basis? The usual response is I don't have the time. Well as parents we all know what happens when we don't have the time for our families don't we.

The managers role is to be the mother to the company. It really is that easy. Trouble is not many know how to wear a skirt!
Just Smile makes the day go better.
Love it Mike all credit to you for saying it.

Rob Langdon
Quality Manager
Biomedical Technology Services