Listen to the Experts on the Process: your Operators.

Listen to the Experts on the Process: your Operators.

The beauty of Lean lies in the fact that we can improve our operating results immediately by using ideas that our employees have not only come up with, but sometimes even already implemented to great effect. All we have to do is… take advantage of these ideas. However, an idea can’t be used if it hasn’t been noticed.

I’ve experienced numerous situations where employees performed differently in the presence of the manager or foreman, and when that person was absent from the production hall. These methods can be divided into two categories:

  1. Optimizing work by the operator through breaking safety rules
  2. Optimizing work by the operator through the elimination of waste

Both cases are equally frequent and they result from poorly designed processes that have been imposed on the operator. It is the supervisor who is responsible for the design process. I agree with John Shook, who notes that in a surprisingly large number of companies, the problem is a persistent “fireman mentality.”

It manifests itself as a tendency to create and reward managers: heroes, people who functioned efficiently in situations of “putting out” all sorts of crises through the use of sometimes drastic solutions. Previously, however, they did very little to prevent said crises. Which is what the role of managers should be, on which Toyota Production System puts a strong emphasis. This was confirmed by the words of Fujio Cho, one of Toyota’s presidents: “We not only want to show respect for our employees, as we show it for all other people, but also to respect the humanity in them, that is the qualities that make us human – the ability to think and feel. We must show respect through the way we plan and organize their work, so that it lets them think better and feel more and more.”

While improving the quality, efficiency, and reducing costs, it is worthwhile to try out ideas of those who work in gemba – the operators. They know the weaker sides of the process perfectly, and often only by their wits and ingenuity does production happen at all.

‘Cardboard engineering’: a piece of cardboard, tape, metal or wood placed in the right spot of the machine or line allows it to work perfectly, even though earlier the entire engineering or maintenance departments failed to solve the problems. In order to reach out to them, we must either gain the full trust of operators or spend the majority of time at the production hall, in gemba. I encourage you to apply both solutions. The latter is, in fact, one of the most effective methods to achieve the former.

Many times I achieved an increase in performance only by selecting the best way of working from among a variety of those I had witnessed, like different production shifts or various similar lines. Thus, I simply copied existing solutions worked out by operators and turned them into standards. Below is one of the recent examples.


Food industry. Department of dry product confectionery. The operators performed the following operations:

Production operations

I noticed that during one of the shifts, the operator carried out the sequence in a different way, performing two operations simultaneously:

sequence after Lean improvement

The gain from performing the actions in this sequence is 17 seconds on each cycle, which produces a 14.6% increase in performance. Similar to the above example is the one I described in the article

Often we do not need to lose sleep trying to find a solution, which can be very hard.

It is enough to accompany one’s operators, “(…) show them respect in the way we plan and organize their work, so that it lets them think better and feel more.” To be in gemba all the time – it is probably the hardest part, unfortunately.


Mr Marek

In one of the teams that I was managing I had a subordinate who had worked in the plant for several decades. For all those years he had tried to convince his previous managers to his solutions. Unsuccessfully. They often wouldn’t even listen to him. One day he came to me and handed me a big, thick file with all the ideas. There was everything: calculations, drawings, even financial calculation. I consider this my greatest professional success: the fact that he trusted that I would use his ideas. So I did, I literally implemented them directly. Results soared, which is what I wish for you too.

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