Working smarter ... and harder


    One of the most often repeated, and silliest, mantras spouted by lean advocates is that it is about working smarter, rather than working harder. In fact, working harder is right at the core of success – lean or otherwise. Elon Musk (he of Paypal and Tesla fame), speaking to the graduates of USC said they should, “Surround yourself with good people”. He advised them to, “Focus on the fundamentals” and “Take risks”. Most important, he urged them to, “Work super hard”. Very good advice – all of it.

    It is very true that lots of people working at companies with crappy, ‘maximize shareholder values’ cultures simply don’t work very hard – and who can blame them? Top down, command-and-control management, management by fear and intimidation, demanding that people do lots of work that creates no value, and management setting different standards of work and behavior for themselves than for the folks in the trenches all create an atmosphere in which people often approach their job looking to do the bare minimum to keep getting a paycheck … and absolutely nothing more. They are working for the clock instead of the customers.

    One company I know that is steeped in lean tools but little else is a great example. Year after year the management team wrings their hands wondering what they can possibly do about the fact that their seasonal business demands that their production employees work every Saturday through the summer. Morale is lousy and the relationship between production folks and management stinks. There are lots of lean techniques to solve their problem, but the starting point should be to have Saturdays mandatory for management too. It should come as little surprise that attitudes, productivity and the work ethic are mediocre when the production folks have their noses to the grindstone every weekend while management folks are off playing golf, fishing and barbecuing with the neighbors.

    By contrast, in the best of the lean companies, the work ethic is amazing, starting with management that sets the bar very high for themselves. They engage everyone in a culture of doing whatever it takes to keep customers happy and coming back for more, recognizing very clearly the effort production folks put into making that happen; and never asking the folks in the trenches to do anything they are unwilling to do. In such companies, the sense of common purpose, mutual respect and faith that everyone will share in the rewards for their commitment to the customers makes it very easy for people to gladly put in considerable extra effort … and to take pride in having done so.

    Of course the focus of lean is not to create extra work on top of all of the silly, unnecessary work people do that creates no value – paperwork, meetings, sorting out defects and moving parts and products around from one place to another. The elimination of that sort of nonsense is what lean folks mean when they say it is about working smarter, rather than harder. And the mantra is quite often used to belie the approach that second rate management takes with lean that it is doing more with less – meaning lay off 10% of the work force and expect the remaining people to simply absorb the work done by the people who were sacked.

    But make no mistake, lean companies work very, very hard. I have yet to see a lean success story that has a nine to five culture. The difference is that lean companies have a culture in which employees take deep pride in working harder than the competition, and they know the extra work is appreciated and it serves themselves and their customers – not just a bunch of stock holders and a management team imbued with a sense of entitlement.

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