The Little Guy is More Important than the Big Boss

To successfully make a transition to lean production, you must have the support of top people in the organization. There are simply too many fundamental, revolutionary changes that have to happen when you become lean to try to get it all done as some kind of “rogue operation.” You’ll need to re-examine your relationships with your workers, your management, your suppliers, your customers, and every single task you perform. And you’ll have to do it continuously, over and over again, forever. It’ll never happen for real if the Big Boss isn’t on board.

However, it’s equally true that real change will never happen if the Little Guy isn’t on board. Lean production methods push responsibility and control down the organizational hierarchy to the people directly adding value for the customer. Workers and managers at all levels are just different kinds of problem solvers, and all are expected to be continuously be thinking about ways to improve the lean production process to get rid of waste and become more responsive.

As my knowledge of lean techniques grows and my enthusiasm for making our everyday lives leaner builds, I have been increasingly taking the role of Big Boss on these little lifestyle initiatives in our home. That is a good thing in many ways; it’s important to have an influential leader giving support to any lean transformation attempt.

However, I’ve been making the mistake of overlooking the crucial role of the Little Guy. I have been spending too much time trying to nudge, wheedle, cajole, and nag my spouse into obeying and supporting the lean everyday processes I’m coming up with, with little success. I’ve made many attempts to explain why these methods are better, but that doesn’t seem to be enough to guarantee the cooperation and enthusiasm I am looking for.

Since my wife and I spend a great deal of time apart on weekdays, I can overlook these implementation issues by simply ignoring them and living a separate existence when she’s not around. But that’s wasteful, since it guarantees a lot of repair work to get “the system” back into its accustomed shape when the weekend ends and I am in total control again.

It also misses the point: My spouse is an equal participant in our everyday lives. Even though I am the unquestioned authority on lean methods, I am not the only person who washes dishes or makes meals or does laundry or any of a thousand other things necessary to get through a week in our lives. Ignoring my spouse’s actions or trying to paper-over them with frenzied activity when she’s not around (as though I’m having an affair with lean production methods!) just isn’t the right approach.

Instead, I should be doing what lean production says I should do: Pushing responsibility down the org chart and pushing communication up the org chart. I should be involving my wife in the transformation, getting her thoughts on where the processes work and where they need improvement.

Getting her input will help her feel more committed to the improvement project, but it goes beyond such self-serving outcomes: She is a front-line worker in our everyday lives, so she HAS to have a lot of ideas about how we could do things better. Even worse, as an ongoing participant in these processes, she will doubtlessly have MORE ideas as we go along, especially if she’s truly engaged with the continuous improvement project. Ignoring all of these ideas (and potential ideas) is foolhardy and might even be more counterproductive than the resentment she’s bound to feel at having a bunch of new processes forced upon her with no room for discussion.

Changing to a lean organization model really involves a fundamental change in how you see the participants. I am not the guru concocting grand schemes for my wife the line-worker to implement. We are partners, each of us doing crucial problem-solving to make the processes continuously better in large ways and small. It won’t work unless everyone is on board, whether Big Boss or Little guy.

That’s hard to accept. I’m not sure how exactly to get my wife involved in this project the way she needs to be for it to work, and many business leaders don’t know how to get their workers truly involved in their lean projects either. It’s easier just to lay down a set of process improvements developed at the highest levels and let the workers just do it whether they like it or not, but that isn’t a recipe for long term success.

I will be thinking a great deal more about how to get everyone involved in the continuous improvement of our everyday processes using lean production methods. After all, these issues with ownership and consensus and buy-in will only become more pronounced when the kids are no longer toddlers and they, too, become part of our getting our everyday life processes done.


About adbenking

A journeyman sociologist living in Chicagoland.
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