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Lean Works Better with Coffee

May 3, 2022
Hot beverages have been an important bit player for me in tough troubleshooting situations.

Manufacturing is a dynamic environment requiring agile decision-making to ensure efficient operations. It is a daily challenge for leadership to inspire the workforce, strengthen trust, bond with employees and reenergize the team as they thoroughly problem-solve complex operations concerns.

In my over 25 years of manufacturing experience, I have extensively utilized a particular tool to overcome these obstacles. Manufacturing facilities have work zones that house cribs with tools and supplies. Alongside necessary materials and instruments to support operations, coffee pots are an anchor.

When I reflect on my experience working with manufacturing teams, often as an outsider coming in to troubleshoot, I realize that coffee (or tea, or water for the non-caffeinated) has been an important bit player in many of these scenarios.

Coffee and conversation are a great pair to start relationship-building. Sharing a cup of coffee creates a perfect scenario to re-energize a dialogue with colleagues. Coffee can also serve as a reward or recognition of a job well done as we work to develop cohesive work teams.

Relationships: Foundational for Team Creation

Cohesive work teams are built on good relationships. Manufacturing operations teams are often made up of people with diverse skill sets and different levels who must come together to collaborate. Without an effort to foster robust connections between people, collaboration falters. Facilitating constructive dialogue between different levels in the workforce hierarchy neutralizes position titles and concentrates the discussion on the objective.

Relationship-building among work colleagues requires starting an essential connection and expanding it over time. Frequent interaction and a diversity of conversation (both work and personal) are necessary for a vital relationship.

Finding Common Ground 

I can recall a unique situation where leveraging coffee developed a connection and allowed me to progress with desired goals. My management team approached me to support another facility on a challenging concern. Having only been introduced via phone conversation to one individual, I had to quickly become a team asset to be effective in supporting and resolving the situation.

As I approached the situation, the team immediately viewed me as an outsider who was not welcome. My arrival reflected badly on their ability to accomplish the task themselves. The agitated environment made it difficult to communicate and get any real answers to my questions. The team replied with only “yes” and “no” to my attempts to get a dialogue going. My time to help was limited, and I had to generate bonds and relationships with the team quickly.

I decided to get acclimated with the area, and headed over to the maintenance crib where several workers involved in the concern were having dialogue in the coffee area. Seizing the moment, I walked over to them and poured myself a cup of coffee. While I was having my coffee, several of the workers started to engage in conversations unrelated to the crisis. As we talked about my current work location, several individuals knew of an old colleague who worked there. Immediately this connection neutralized their stance, and they embraced me. Instantly, they started to get me engaged in discussions, and together we resolved the concern.

 Coffee was a medium to build an initial connection. The discovery of a shared link allowed me to enter their circle during the conversation. Engagement allows a two-way dialogue critical for practical teamwork.

Renergization: Recharge and Readjust Team Efforts

Re-energizing is vital during extensive periods of problem-solving when teams start to become disconnected and ineffective. Continuing without a break, i.e., “forcing a solution,” will bring diminishing returns and drive teams to just appease the situation and come up with an inferior solution.

Decompress and Realign

During a long, difficult problem-solving session, I capitalized on coffee to recharge and refocus the team. An operations team was suffering a significant loss of production. The crisis happened during the off-shift hours (during limited resources), and a large team was engaged in determining the root cause of issues with the equipment. As I approached the situation, I could clearly see exhaustion and defeat in the majority of the team members. There was a deep concern around the ability to resolve the problem, and they expressed hopefulness, both in words and body language. As different management individuals approached the same question, "What is the problem?" the team was consistently asked, "When will production be able to resume?"

Early in my career, I had the honor of working for a great mentor who continued to stress assessment before action. Following my mentor’s example, I just observed the situation and the team’s replies to questions. But as more and more individuals from different levels in the organization approached, the team started to stray into hopelessness.

During a period when the team was on standby waiting on part delivery for the inoperable equipment, I decided to employ my go-to, "COFFEE." I quickly walked up to the team and said, "I have a question.” Immediately, they looked at me like they did not care to answer since they had been bombarded all morning long. I asked, "Who is ready for a cup of coffee—my treat?” Relief appeared on their faces, and we proceeded to the coffee pot. I advised them to have a seat away from the situation and the team would notify me when the part arrived.

Away from concern, the team was able to change its mindset and have a conversation with minimal interruptions. After small individual discussions, I redirected the dialogue to the crisis at hand. The team started to discuss other potential solutions. Personal conversations converged into one all-inclusive dialogue. As the conversation progressed, voices became more energized, hopelessness turned into a challenge to overcome, and the outcome was successful.

Reward and Recognition - Elevate and Inspire the Team

Rewarding and recognizing the workforce is an area of opportunity that leadership teams truly miss. I have noticed that overall management exhausts, "Thank You." Such a simple statement is not adequate when praising employees. Lacking genuine meaning, it comes off as shallow, and employees quickly uncover hidden agendas. Once the feeling of distrust occurs, employees become uncooperative and disengaged.

A Simple Gesture Can be Greater than Financial Gain

I have extensively used coffee as a medium for displaying sincere appreciation for support. A simple cup of coffee goes a long way. A tangible item at a critical moment can generate substantially more of an impact than actual financial compensation.

In one particular situation, I was able to uplift a colleague in many situations. Recently, there was a concerning need for techs to regress parts in manufacturing. One gentleman was working very hard, and I asked him what I could do to help. He jokingly asked for a cup of coffee. I followed up, asking what kind of coffee he liked, whether he took cream or sugar. After our discussion, I went and retrieved his coffee order and provided it. He was very shocked and grateful. I noticed more pep in his work ethic. Later in the week, I saw him in the team room and wanted to reward and recognize him in front of his colleagues. I got another cup and just walked up, set it in front of him, and walked away. As I was walking away, I heard others asking him significant questions. Hopefully, this elevated him to continue performing, and challenged other team members to step up. I will continue to embrace the coffee tool as an avenue to motivate and inspire.

This article displays just a tiny portion of ways to utilize coffee to connect with individuals and establish dialogues. Sincerity and behavioral activities solidify leadership commitment and appreciation for reward and recognition of the workforce. As discussed in each scenario, the individual is responsible for establishing trust. Trust is created by displaying sincerity and by actions. These activities must be consistently embraced to continue solidifying relationships with the workforce.

Coffee is just one potential medium for influencing relationships. Recently, senior leadership at my company has incorporated hot beverage machines within facilities, allowing employees to partake throughout the workday. My portfolio has expanded to non-coffee drinkers, thanks to those machines.

Leaders must seek to find methods and elements that align with their personalities. Historical methods of command and control have a limited impact on the longevity of performance results. 

Saso Krstovski is a lean manufacturing Master Black Belt at Ford Motor Co.

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