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?
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“The only thing I know is that I do not know it all.” -- Socrates