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How Do You Address Skilled Employees Who Refuse to Embrace a Lean Initiative?

Feb. 4, 2015
Ask the Expert: Lean Leadership:  Have a question about lean leadership? Let Larry Fast tackle it for you.

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.

Larry Fast

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.”

Support a Great Attitude

When you start a CI journey, people are expecting change. Don’t disappoint them! They need to see the alignment of their leadership. They need to understand what the next steps are and how and when they will become involved. This is the important early work to get done. One of my former plant managers brought with him a saying that we adopted for our company’s use: “We carry our wounded but we shoot the stragglers.”

In other words, if someone has a great attitude and shows a lot of interest -- just doesn’t know how to begin -- we would get them into workshops/seminars, assign a mentor, etc., to help give them a jump start on understanding their role. They would receive our full support to get them up to speed. If, however, the stragglers didn’t show any interest and were undermining the CI journey, they’d be terminated.

This must be done the first six to 12 months for all offenders.  Otherwise the leadership begins to undermine its own CI initiative. I also would add that this thinking doesn’t just apply to the factory. If there’s a member of the senior leadership team who isn’t on board, that person should get the same outcome.

This work is never easy and almost always creates some short-term pain getting the organization put back together with the right people.

So what do we do about replacing Elvis? The first option always is to look internally and reward an existing employee with the opportunity. Most companies would likely have to do an internal posting for seven days or so before going to the outside. Unless you have a journeyman tool and die person who hired on to get a foot in the door, there likely isn’t anyone in the facility who can meet all the requirements. On the other hand, if you happen to have a third-year apprentice (on a four-year program) in the department who is doing well, you may want to give that person a shot by holding the journeyman position open and then post to start a new apprentice to replenish the headcount required.

If you choose to go outside, then you may find a contract person willing to come in immediately until you can recruit. Or you may have to put the other tool and die people on an extended overtime schedule. Just remember, it’s not about what that costs. It’s about cutting a cancer out of the operation. Don’t procrastinate.  Everyone in the department and possibly the plant is watching.

Finally, don’t hide the reason anyone is terminated. Make sure the reason for Elvis’ firing is because of the lack of alignment and support of the CI journey. The word will travel fast.

Replacing Madonna is similarly done. If she fails to change her attitude and deliver professionally prepared reports at the next steering team meeting, she should be terminated immediately following the meeting. Because the boss didn’t have much confidence she would step up, plans to replace her started right after the first disciplinary interview.

If there’s a qualified candidate already onboard, that makes it easy and the posting would be to replace the newly promoted engineering manager. If going outside were necessary, then the plant manager, with the HR manager’s help, would start a confidential search so that candidates to be interviewed would be scheduled as the incumbent was being terminated.

Again, this work is never easy and almost always creates some short-term pain getting the organization put back together with the right people. But on a career-long journey, the pain is short-lived and is always the right answer. Remember: The first six to 12 months, get the turkeys out. Don’t drag your feet. Your entire workforce is watching you to see the level of your commitment to CI.

“Those that say it can’t be done need to get out of the way of the people who are already doing it.”  -- Joel Barker, author and futurist

Larry Fast is founder and president of Pathways to Manufacturing Excellence and a veteran of 35 years in the wire and cable industry. He is the author of "The 12 Principles of Manufacturing Excellence: A Leader's Guide to Achieving and Sustaining Excellence." A second edition is planned for release in 2015. As Belden’s VP of manufacturing Fast led a transformation of Belden plants in the late '80s and early '90s that included cellularizing about 80% of the company’s equipment around common products and routing, and the use of what is now know as lean tools. Fast is retired from General Cable Corp., which he joined in 1997. As General Cable's senior vice president of operations, Fast launched a manufacturing excellence strategy in 1999. Since the launch of the strategy, there have been 34 General Cable IndustryWeek “Best Plants Finalist awards, including 12 IW Best Plants winners. Fast holds a bachelor's degree in management and administration from Indiana University and is a graduate from Earlham College’s Institute for Executive Growth. He also completed the program for management development at the Harvard University School of Business.

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