Are You Holding Back ?
 
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“If you want to retain those who are present, be loyal to those who are absent.”

-- Dr. Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

“Learning cannot be disassociated from action.”

-- Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline

“The most important measures are both unknown and unknowable.”

-- W. Edwards Deming, Out of the Crisis

 

Are You Holding Back? by Kevin McManus

First published in Industrial Engineer magazine August 2000

Less than a week into my first job as an Industrial Engineer, I was presented with a challenge that would become a common part of my job over the next twenty years.  While conducting one of my first real-life time studies out on the production floor, I was asked a simple question by one of the assembly line employees that I was timing – “What are you doing?”

The question seemed innocent enough, and I proceeded to tell her that I was studying her assembly job to determine if the labor standard was set properly.  She listened in a patient way, and then asked her question again, but in a different way – “Why are you doing it that way?  I mean, why are using you a stopwatch and that clipboard with a form on it?”  I guess that my puzzled look gave her a clue that I had no idea what she was asking about, so she tried making a statement instead.  She told me that whenever the ‘big boss’ (the Vice President of Operations) checked on the labor standard himself, he simply used a pieces per hour watch – no clipboard, no form, and most certainly no dialogue with the workforce – he tried to hide behind a pole while he studied a given job so that his presence would not be detected.

Although I had been on the job for only a few days, I knew right away that this was not right.  Both his method (no consideration for delays or allowances) and his approach (trying to hide behind a pole) were not consistent with what I had been taught in my Methods and Standards class or with what I believed to be fair or right.  My challenge was in front of me – do I confront the ‘big boss’ directly, go to my supervisor with the problem, or just keep it to myself?

Over the next twenty years, I would find myself having to deal with these three options again and again.  Should I speak out about how I felt rotating shifts every two weeks was too hard on people?  Should I tell the corporate vice president that the team design he was advocating is flawed?  Should I tell my boss that the consultant we hired was plagiarizing from a $100 off-the-shelf training package?  Should I tell the owners that a lot of employees did not trust them and think that they are always lying to them?

Industrial engineers, like most members of middle management, often find themselves uncovering information and employee feelings that they really do not know what to do with.  Do they betray the confidence of the person that shared a ‘secret’ with them, or do they keep it quiet?  Does the employee expect you to fix their problem, or are they just venting?  The primary assignments we are given are to improve the business, reduce costs, and improve quality.  In reality, speaking out could perhaps have more impact than any project we were to complete, IF we were believed and taking seriously by the person we were challenging.  Instead of putting systems in place that force or encourage behavior change, we would often be better served to confront problem behaviors in the workplace more directly, whether they involve an upwards or downwards challenge.

Suffice to say, I learned about tactful confrontation the hard way.  I also learned about fear in the workplace, and how much power we give to such fear that is often very overblown in terms of its consequences, especially in this day and age.  What are they going to do – fire you?  No, more likely you will be labeled as a malcontent at worst.  At best, they just might listen to you.  The reality is that you have to pick your battles.  Either way, you have to be willing to live with the consequences of either holding back or speaking out.

I can say that in hindsight, I should have been more outspoken.  I can also say that on some of those occasions where I did speak my mind, I could have been more tactful, focused on specific examples instead of broad generalizations, or picked a better time to bring up my concerns.  In general however, I let a perceived and overblown fear of negative consequences cause me to speak my mind less than I should have.  In turn, there are people still working with systems and poor behaving managers that should not be in six different facilities.

Two years ago, the story of Rosa Parks was receiving additional press as we approached an anniversary date of her defiant choice of bus seating.  On one of the shows I watched about this courageous lady, I came across a quote that has both stayed with me and motivated me since that time --  “If you sit at the back of the bus long enough, you will begin to think that you belong there.”  In other words, if we continue to hold back our feelings and ideas about what really needs to change to drive workplace improvements, we will be even less apt to bring such things up in future situations.

I believe that middle managers, including industrial engineers, can have more effect on workplace performance than any other group.  They can only have this degree of influence however if they know their systems, listen to their people, are willing to take a stand, and can support their claims with facts and examples.  We are trained to meet two out of these four conditions – we are not trained in the fine art of empathic listening or challenging others who are our peers or hold positions above us.

I am not asking you to put your job on the line tomorrow by telling your boss that he is an egotistical, power hungry, close-minded person.  I am asking you however to consider the range of issues that you are aware of taking place in your workplace right now. Some I am sure are worth taking a stand for.  I will also say that more often than not in those cases where I got up the nerve to take a tactful and justified stand, changes did eventually occur, at least to some degree.  This would not have happened, or happened as quickly, if I had chosen to take a back seat.

Are people counting on you to make a difference?  Are you holding back?  Are you destined to sit at the back of the bus? Rosa Parks chose not to – what choices will you make? 

Keep improving!

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Last Revised - July 28, 2006