Over many years we’ve had a few less than flattering nicknames thrown our way. It’s all part of the job when you are somewhat of an intruder in an organization. The funniest was probably “Cushman bait.” This was the nickname jokingly given to our consultants at a large aerospace manufacturing plant. “Cushman” was the brand name of the utility vehicle employees drove around the plant. It wasn’t all that funny to our consultants at the time, but it is pretty funny if you didn’t take it literally!
This particular plant was unionized, although that’s not really relevant, as it’s fairly common for workers (unionized or not) to be less than thrilled that we are spending time up close and personal, observing them do their work. What is almost always surprising is how much their opinion changes by the time we’ve finished doing our “observations.” Employees are often initially worried that our watching them work is some kind of “Big Brother” intrusion and that the outcome won’t be beneficial to them. By the time we’re finished, however, most employees agree that there is no better way to understand their daily issues than to spend a day in their shoes and see the world through their eyes, completely unfiltered. It’s arguably the most honest way to really understand what they have to deal with on a daily basis.
To get past their initial resistance and to help ensure that the observation experience is positive, we follow a few helpful guidelines:
1. Clarify the purpose.
Take the time to properly inform employees of the purpose of watching work where and when it happens, which is to see the inherent operating problems that impede the process — not to watch individuals. We never attach an individual’s name to an observation: it’s irrelevant to the purpose.
2. Be transparent.
Share what you are observing with the employee and keep them informed about what you plan to do with the information. Remind them that it is not an assessment of them personally in any way.
3. Protect your sources.
When you share observations with management, it’s critical that you again stress the purpose of the observation (i.e., the process, not people). Sometimes there is a knee-jerk reaction to reprimand an employee when problems are observed. However, you can’t let management do this or employees will simply shut down. Also, as we have discussed previously, most operating problems have more to do with the process and how it’s managed than they do with individuals.
4. Follow up.
After completing a series of observations, you need to close the loop. It’s helpful to employees if you let them know what was collectively learned — and what resulting changes are being examined and tested.