Is Your Leadership Making People Lazy?

July 17, 2013
  • Bob Chapman
  • Bob Chapman
    CEO & Chairman of Barry-Wehmiller

It’s not them, it’s you.

As a leader, have you ever felt like some of your workers were “lazy”?

Imagine walking out into your plant, and seeing a guy leaning on his machine for hours every day.  He must be lazy, right?

That was what you might have seen on any given day at Barry-Wehmiller’s MarquipWardUnited (Now BW Papersystems) operations in Baltimore.

Veteran machinist Jimmy stood by his machine through multiple supervisors who all offered the same mantra: “Do what I tell you today.” 

Often, this meant Jimmy would spend the day leaning lazily against the machine simply watching it run. Jimmy had long ago given up offering suggestions as to how he could better use his time.  Instead, he did as instructed by a supervisor years ago, standing within ten feet of his machine while it turned out parts all day long. Boring work, never ending days.

“All I do is stare at the machine and watch it run,” Jimmy shared. “It’s like watching the laundry machine. It keeps spinning and spinning, but there isn’t anything exciting going on.”

When leaders heard comments like that from Jimmy, they had the misguided impression that he didn’t want to be a part of making improvements.

Then, finally, something changed.

Like most American manufacturing businesses, the business began struggling against foreign competition and pricing pressure; the future looked challenging. We needed to create a better future for the organization, and we asked team members like Jimmy to be part of doing just that.

Understandably, Jimmy was skeptical when we asked him to be part of improving the way we do things. For more than twenty years, Jimmy’s supervisors let him know that they only valued his hands, not his head or his heart.  Then we came along and invited him to take Responsible Freedom. [Is Your Leadership Due for a Checkup?, July 10, 2013]

Through responsible freedom, team members are asked to contribute their gifts and talents, have a bias for action and take accountability for the outcome. This kind of environment relies on a partnership of trust. Leaders trust team members to act responsibly, with consideration for how their actions will affect others around them as well as their own work. Team members trust leaders will allow them the freedom to try things and make mistakes.

Ultimately, responsible freedom allows people like Jimmy to feel better about their work. But it goes beyond that.

If American manufacturing companies like MWU are going to not just survive, but thrive, then team members need to be engaged in making the business better. They need to have a bias for action, to feel ownership for continuously improving things every day. They need to play an active part in creating their own future.

Once we began continuous improvement events in Jimmy’s area, the entire project team realized that the system had been the problem, not Jimmy. “All of Jimmy’s materials, finished inventory, and related machines were located on the other side of the factory. Jimmy wanted to do more but we weren’t letting him. So we gave him the responsible freedom to make changes,” shared one of the project leaders.

At Jimmy’s request, the materials, inventory storage, and related machines were all moved into his workspace. Jimmy was asked simply to make it work.

“Now I am the leader of the entire shafts and cylinder area, and we pride ourselves on making things better every day. It is so much more fulfilling to make changes and see the results,” Jimmy said.

So you see, Jimmy was just fine; it was our “management” of Jimmy that was the problem. He had gifts and talents, thoughts and ideas just waiting to be shared.

True leaders create space for individuals to be passionate about their work and feel a sense of ownership. Nobody wants to be managed, bossed or supervised. Your people are ready for great leadership. Are you ready to offer them responsible freedom?

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