Paid To Think (Part I): Everyone is a Scientist

Updated: May 5

A series of posts about the engineering method, Lean thinking, and complex adaptive systems.


As a consultant, I often struggle to explain what I do for work to friends and family, but especially my four-year-old son. I usually try simple explanations like saying, “I help people solve problems” or “I help people make things better.” I also refer to relatable roles such as teacher and coach. Not a bad start, but pretty simplistic. I’m always on the lookout for easier ways to explain the work I do.


The other day I was watching an educational video with my son about an engineering team (Leapfrog Letter Factory Adventures: The Letter Machine Rescue Team). Yeah! This seemed like a perfect opportunity to try and explain another aspect of my work as an engineer to my son. The video talked about the job of the engineering team and showed several engineering examples. According to the video, it’s the job of the engineers find and solve problems. After a few minutes, my son’s eyes lit up, he paused the video and turned to me, excited to share his revelation.


“Dada… You get paid to think!”


Yes! [smiling] Yes, I do.


This perfect moment reminded of a Lean concept that I learned from one of my mentors, Steven Spear (1). Spear spent time with Toyota doing research to “decode the DNA of the Toyota Production System” and to understand how they were able to out-learn their competitors. According to Spear,

“We found that, for outsiders, the key is to understand that the Toyota Production System creates a community of scientists.”

Everyone at Toyota acts as a scientist who experiments to continually improve his or her own work. For example, if a front-line worker’s job is to install a tire, then their job is also to learn how to continually improve how to install tires. It’s everyone’s job to think and improve every day.


I like to help clients cultivate workplaces where everyone feels like they are paid to think. This is why I tend to have a negative reaction when people mention the concept of “knowledge workers.” Isn’t every employee or entrepreneur a knowledge worker? It makes me wonder if some folks believe that there are jobs where people don’t need any knowledge.


On my pilgrimage to Toyota City in Japan, I decided to test this out for myself. Our factory tour was led by a seasoned tour guide who gave public tours as her primary job. I asked her if she had any plans to improve her work, and she described an experiment to position the tour group in a different place to get a better view of something she wanted to share. She passed the test. Her job was not just to provide tours, but also to experiment and improve how she ran tours to make them better. This is the essence of kaizen. From Dictionary.com,


Kaizen [ kahy-zen ] (改善): noun

Kaizen in kanji
  1. a business philosophy or system that is based on making positive changes on a regular basis, as to improve productivity.

  2. an approach to one’s personal or social life that focuses on continuous improvement.

While I like both of these options, here is my preferred way of defining kaizen:

Kaizen – A philosophy where everyone, everywhere, everyday takes responsibility to drive change for the better.

I sometimes encounter workplaces that struggle with kaizen. Some workplace cultures cultivate a “paycheck mentality” where people only feel like they are there to do the minimum needed to get paid. These folks are often not bad employees, but rather the system that they work in has beat them down over the years and seriously degraded their intrinsic motivation to the point where only extrinsic rewards matter (i.e. a paycheck).

I have also seen some cases where there is not a strong enough social contract in place between the company and employees in order to make it safe to improve. For example, if a ten-person team improves their productivity by 20% through kaizen, is someone at risk for being let go? If so, why even bother with kaizen? During a prior Lean transformation for 600+ person service organization, the leader recognized the need for a strong social contract and made it a point to announce to all employees at the onset of the transformation that no one would be let go due to the improvement efforts.

If you would like learn more about this spirit of kaizen, I’d recommend the work of Masaaki Imai (2). Here is a short video and longer book.


In my next post I’ll share more about the engineer’s method to improve. Stay tuned.


Reflection:

  • What examples of kaizen have you observed recently? (I sometimes see extraordinary examples in what is generally regarded as ordinary work.)

  • What symptoms would you expect to see at workplaces that lack a “paid to think” culture?

  • What other social contracts are needed to foster a “paid to think” workplace?


References:

  1. Spear, Steven. The High-Velocity Edge: How Market Leaders Leverage Operational Excellence to Beat the Competition. 2010.

  2. Imai, Masaaki. Gemba Kaizen: A Commonsense Approach to a Continuous Improvement Strategy. 2012.


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