QUESTION: “How do you address employees who are skilled at their positions but simply refuse to embrace a lean manufacturing initiative?”

ANSWER: This is a great follow up question to my most recent article [Can Union Facilities Support a Lean, Continuous Improvement Culture?] when we spoke to union vs. non-union and whether there is any difference in how you launch a career-long continuous improvement (CI) journey.

As I said then, once the senior leadership of the company has committed to the journey, then it’s up to everyone to get going on the execution of the CI strategy. The voting is over.

That said, just prior to launch, the company has the important responsibility of providing a detailed overview of “the what” and “the why” that is expected going forward, including an open-minded approach and supportive behavior of this critical corporate priority.

Every person in the business should receive this up front. My preference is that the CEO make a CI Journey Launch DVD/Stream so it can be viewed by every employee in the company in seven to 10 days. This helps to educate the masses very quickly as well as eliminates any excuses for non-conforming behaviors going forward.

When you start a CI journey, people are expecting change. Don’t disappoint them!

Today’s question speaks to an important issue that, for good reasons, gives many companies pause.  For example, suppose the launch of your CI journey is no more than a few days old. Already you find that there’s a journeyman tool and die maker in the maintenance department (let’s call him Elvis) who has already vocalized his refusal to participate. He’s been with the company for 30 years and happens to be the best of his craft. The maintenance department, on the other hand, has lots of issues with preventive maintenance items that are poorly done and are causing chronic problems keeping constrained work centers running.

Because Elvis isn’t directly involved with these maintenance issues he makes it clear with his co-workers that other department issues aren’t his problem and encourages others, who aren’t on the preventive maintenance team, to not get involved.  Elvis is directly undermining the new strategy by actively resisting.

Let’s review another example of a salaried person, Madonna, who is the engineering manager of the plant. Her first two priorities assigned by the site steering team in their first meeting were: 1) do an audit of all bills of materials and routers to ensure their accuracy; and 2) do a “skills assessment” and determine what kind of training would be required for her engineers to get them up to speed regarding problem-solving skills. At the subsequent steering team meeting, Madonna had little to report due to “other priorities,” such as Pete had missed a couple of days due to the flu, etc.

Madonna was being passively resistant. This kind of resistance can be difficult to find, though Madonna’s case is more obvious. First-line supervisors and engineers are typical areas where there is passive resistance, and it can sometimes take several months to root these out. The important thing in both examples is that the leadership is aware there will be some folks that don’t want to go in the new direction -- and it’s leadership’s job to expose them and remove the cancers from the operation. CI is hard enough as it is, so any naysayers must go. This should be one of the top priorities of every manager in the business.

So how do we deal with it?  Those who actively resist should get an immediate interview by the department manager with the supervisor present. In the example above, Elvis should first be reminded of the CEO communication on this top corporate priority. Any questions? If so, clarify and get him to acknowledge understanding. If he understands but just doesn’t want to go there, he should be told he is being insubordinate in his behavior and told that if his attitude and behavior do not change immediately he will be terminated.

Your entire workforce is watching you to see the level of your commitment to CI.

Yes, you read it correctly: One warning only, if your policy allows. Most disciplinary policies I’ve ever seen put insubordination right up there with a failed drug test or fighting. If your policy doesn’t, I urge you to change it. Life’s too short to push a rope on the No. 1 priority of the business. It’s simply not fair to the 95%-plus of people who are ready to follow and become involved.

In the case of Madonna, salaried people are typically employed “at will,” so the requirements for termination often are more flexible. In this case, I would recommend a session with the boss, who makes it clear that her peers --as well as the boss himself -- see her passive resistance to the change. She’ll have a chance to explain herself and make excuses, but the message should be clear: Her lack of full support to the team is unacceptable and is considered insubordination.

She should also be charged with coming to the next steering team meeting with a full report on the status of the bills and routers audit and when it will be completed. Further, she should bring a full accounting of her engineers and where deficiencies require training so that she and HR can develop the training plan.

This may bring an answer like, “Gee, boss, I don’t know that I can get all of that done by the time of our next meeting in two weeks.”  

The boss’s reply: “You’ve already had two months to deliver this assignment to the steering team. No more excuses. Get it done.”