Want a Dose of Reality? Go to the Floor!

When something doesn’t feel right, or when things aren’t adding up, go to gemba, Japanese for the real place–where the work gets done.

Go to the sales floor, office floor, showroom floor, surgical floor, warehouse floor, plant floor, truck floor. That’s where you’ll find the problems, what’s causing them and what to do about it.

“I’ve been doing this job for 18 years,” a machine operator in Wisconsin told me a while back. “Not once has someone asked me how to do it better. Every day I wonder why some so-and-so thinks I should do my job his way instead of the way I know it should be done. I could save time and improve the chance that the work would be right. But no one listens here.”

Great leaders go to the floor often. They respect people. They listen. They motivate. They stay in touch. They get better results.

I just returned from interviewing employees working at a client’s facilities in Europe and the US.  I heard terrific ideas that could help improve their work and results. The employees at each location were excited about helping themselves and their company become even better.

After 30-plus years of improving organizational performance, I’ve found that most employees can estimate, within 10-15 percent, how much they could improve the business if they had the right resources. (It also helps if you know what to do with what they tell you.) Here’s an example.

I was working with a manufacturing company that had quality problems–too much scrap (product that had to be thrown away) and rework (product that had to be fixed before it could shipped). Al, the company’s lead engineer, and I were reviewing a pile of spreadsheets that described the quality problem from every conceivable angle.

Al said he thought quality could be improved by 20 percent if done right. He asked me what I thought. I told him I wanted to take a break and think about it. We did.

During our break, I asked five machine operators on the manufacturing floor how much they could improve quality if they had the right resources. They said they could make half of it go away immediately and over time they could reduce it by 70-80 percent.

Afterward, I told Al what the machine operators had told me. Although their estimates didn’t square with his spreadsheets, he said, “Let’s give it a go. What shall we do?”

I suggested getting four or five operators together, invite them to map the work process, show us where the flaws in the process are, then ask them to help create a revised process that would eliminate the flaws.

“In our daily team huddles we’ll post the quality numbers from the following day,” I explained. “When we improve we celebrate. When we don’t, we ask why and adjust.

“We’ll ask them to set a target and make a game out of it. If they hit their target by a certain date, they win the prize that they’ve selected.”

In two weeks, the machine operators improved quality by 50 percent. It was practically gone a relatively brief time later.

Going to the floor isn’t an exercise exclusively reserved for manufacturing operations. A large distribution center went to the floor and improved quality by 65 percent and productivity by 16 percent.  Another company reduced vehicle fleet accidents by 54 percent.

When FedEx Express wanted to improve U.S. exports, we went to the floor in Los Angeles. Working with a team that in the aggregate touched every aspect of their shipping business, they identified and eliminated major barriers to increasing sales.

In four months export volume increased 23 percent. The return on investment was nearly 1,500 percent. We replicated the effort at five more FedEx Express locations and generated an additional $6 million in revenues and a 1,660 percent ROI.

Taking an organization to unheard of heights is a leader’s job. More often than not it starts by capturing the gems of light that people on the floor will gladly offer you, if you  ask.

PS: I’d love to hear your “go-to-the-floor” stories.  Please join the conversation by posting below.

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