Matt's Articles

Stop doing someone else’s job

You might be thinking, “This doesn’t sound very collaborative!” or “This isn’t the spirit of the season!” True, there is probably a more tactful way to get my point across. Perhaps I will cover tact in a separate newsletter. The point is, often we think we are doing the right thing by “stepping up” and correcting a problem that was caused somewhere else. In actuality we are covering up systemic issues and hiding the inefficiencies in our process. This is a behavior that I see often and is worth further discussion.

When I first read about the method of using an Andon Cord, I really didn’t get it. You pull a cord to get some help. It didn’t seem like a big deal. All I saw were the mechanics and I missed the behavior that it seeks to address. As I gained more experience and watched how people work, I gained an appreciation for the greater purpose of this method. My first realization was that giving every employee the ability to stop production is an incredible risk to the producer and a great show of trust. The cost of a down production line can be millions of dollars an hour so why does the producer take the risk? What I came to understand is that we need to overcome our natural tendency to just fix whatever problem is in front of us and move on. This natural tendency hides problems and perpetuates inefficient systems. To do anything different is counter intuitive. It feels good fixing an issue, especially if you are helping someone else. Likewise, it feels bad to call out someone else for making a mistake. We all make mistakes, don’t we? This is the counterintuitive part and it makes this method brilliant. We all make mistakes. When we hide them or when other people fix our mistakes, we don’t learn. Without a feedback mechanism there is no learning. Problems continue; they grow, and we never see the cost. It is all hidden. Pulling the cord, getting attention, identifying the need for retraining, retooling, re-methodizing exposes the hidden costs and produces better outcomes over the long run. Producers that effectively use Andon Cords know the cost of hidden problems is greater than the risk of a down production line.

This is not just a problem for manufacturing work. From my experience, it is far worse in knowledge work because the problems are much harder to see. Knowledge work is far less standardized than what we see in manufacturing and repetitive services. It’s expected and understood that the work we do today won’t look much like the work we do tomorrow. This means it is hard to see systemic issues and people become accustomed to fixing anything that comes across their desk. It is much harder to rout this out. I have countless examples of partially completed forms, inconsistent information passed along, and extending people beyond their skillset. In these examples, the employee at the end of the process fixes all the issues that occurred upstream. This is what I mean by “Stop doing someone else’s job.”

Now I better soften these statements. Please do not go off and start pointing fingers at your co-workers. This is not a blame game. The mindset that we must take is that people want to do their job and will do it so long as the job is defined and they are given the training, tools, and methods to accomplish it properly. The biggest problem that I see in knowledge work is poor role and responsibility definitions. “I didn’t know you needed that.” I didn’t know I was supposed to do that.” When was the last time you reviewed your job description? Does it describe what you do? Has your role evolved since you started working for your company? Poor responsibility definitions create misalignments. We don’t know who it is that is not doing their job. Keep in mind that it could be you!

I suggest we all start here. First, agree on a method to alert and discuss issues, within your company. Andon Cords are great, but they won’t work for most of us and often we don’t need the same level of urgency that you find in high-volume manufacturing. Second, know your role and know your co-workers’ responsibilities. Read that job description. Talk to each other and agree on what is expected from your peers and expected from you. Then, when something comes to your desk that is out of these expectations, stop the line! Don’t just fix it. Raise it as an issue and deliberately change the job descriptions or standard work to handle these variations. We can resolve a lot of problems with more communication and a little bit of documentation. When we bring visibility to the work that is not part of our job, our leaders better understand the day-to-day challenges in running the business and are more capable of making the investment and organizational decisions that will expose and eliminate waste.