I recently conducted a 5S workshop and encountered what is commonly referred to as “the frozen middle” (mid-level managers who, either intentionally or unintentionally impede change). While working with my team to design our new process flow, a member of our front-line leadership team walked past us and commented that our design “would never work” and that we were “wasting our time”.
The comment was not upsetting for me. I wasn’t offended (I expect resistance to every change, even the most minor); rather, I saw this as an opportunity. I invited the leader to join our team and participate in the design. At first he was hesitant, but once he realized that my invitation was authentic he quickly began participating in the work flow design process. He provided some excellent input and used his knowledge and experience to make our new process design even better.
What his participation really did was show respect for the project team members and the work they were doing. His initial derision of the project was (unintentionally) a degradation of the value of the work being done by the 5S workshop team (and, by extension, a devaluation of them personally). By opening himself to the process, he provided validation of the work being done by the team members and renewed their engagement not only in the 5S workshop but also at an organizational level.
The validation he provided to the team was important. The Continuous Improvement initiative at this facility is new. The long-term employees have some experience with 5S, but no experience with sustainment. Disapproval of the initiative from a very respected mid-level leader in the organization would have resulted in a setback for the program that would be challenging to overcome.
For me, this was a reminder of how important it is to hear the “voice of the customer”. From one perspective, this leader is the customer of the process we were designing. Had we ignored his comments and continued working we would have lost the opportunity to hear his concerns (the operations we were changing were his responsibility, after all). This would have negatively affected not only him, but also the sustainability of the project.
Nothing will shut down the engagement of a workforce like feeling that their best efforts aren’t appreciated by management. That is why sustainment is so important. Even if the project’s results aren’t as good as intended, the project should still be celebrated as a stepping stone on the way to improvement. Regardless of results, contributors to the project should be made to feel valued and respected for their contributions to the organization.
How do you work to encourage respect for your project teams?