Unions are cerunion-worker-striking-sledgehammer-crest-retro_m1XqTrtainly under some fire in today’s current business, social & political scene. I’m not joining in on any bashing or political debate on this subject; but I have seen problems arise between labor and management when a company adopts lean as a strategy. I believe there are lessons to be learned to understand some critical concepts for success. These problems can be significant obstacles if not addressed properly. As in any relationship, communication is the key!

My first experience being a part of a lean transformation came while working in a union shop. We had a good family-like environment represented in the culture and there were very little, if any, significant union versus management issues. Unfortunately, this is not the case with many organizations. Regardless of this advantage, we still had many hurdles to overcome in our pursuit of creating a value stream organization. The changes that came during the implementation raised many questions within our people that we had to answer quickly and clearly. We had “expediting experts” who would have nothing to expedite. We had inspectors, welders, packers, etc… who only did one thing, one way. There were some who were afraid to lose their job, some were afraid to learn something new and others just afraid of change. It wasn’t just operations and union employees who had these kinds of questions and concerns because this affected everyone. We were all about to work very differently as we embarked in this major transformation.

Lean can have a negative connotation with people that creates fear. Our job as leaders was to eliminate fear and create a vision that people could understand and benefit from being a part of as we moved forward. We were open with the people in letting them know why we needed to do this, clearly communicated the vision, and created an opportunity for everyone to benefit. It was very powerful!

Empowering people requires cross-training! The existing union pay scales and structures did not reward or promote cross-training and often made it difficult to move people who did not want to learn another task. We knew we had to address this immediately. We learned as an organization that cross-training was truly a “win – win” for profits and our people. Why are there some people that don’t get this? The attitude of “that’s not my job” has no place when you are trying to build an organization of problem solvers. Isn’t it better to know a variety of different jobs and skills? Some organizations are afraid to share information with employees. This is another mistake. For lean organizations, cross-training is critical to achieving a strategy that creates flexibility, stability, improvement and growth for the company and their people.

We had to restructure in many ways. This included the organizational chart down to the way we rewarded people in the organization. Culture is always thought of as something hard to change. Ultimately, the way we manage creates the culture. So, maybe it is more difficult for the managers to change than it is to change the culture? Unions don’t have to be anti-lean, but they have to understand that we cannot work in a traditional manner and expect lean results. Leadership has to do the same thing! I found the best way to do this involved these key issues:
– Remove fear
– Communicate a clear vision
– Empower your people
– Make it so everyone benefits

In this example, we transformed & saved the company during a very difficult time. Our improvements were outstanding and our people benefited tremendously as a result of being empowered.

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8 Responses to ARE UNIONS ANTI-LEAN? by David Paino

  1. Union Busting Never Changes says:

    Lean programs are nothing more then an “work for less program”. There is no fear in this con. I have never known a smart man to cut off his source of income. We all wish to think we are smart; if so, then it is clear what a lean program is and what it will do to the wage earner. Management strokes itself off in the corner; as it does not have a clue how to run its own operations. Let ask the worker? hum, maybe they will think us ” dum”? – we can’t let them find out that our college was a waste? You don’t need a program like “lean” , what you need is a kick in the ass out the door. I have yet to meet a person in management that knew what the hell they were doing besides sucking the owners money out of his pocket. Only an owner of a business understands what is “of value” -not a manger;…employees who own an interest in a company and share in the profit; hum….i don’t need supervisors or managers (save the money)- fire them all and replace them with profit sharing employee and you will be on the road to wealth.

  2. Yves MILLE says:

    Dear friends,
    I don’t agree with this point of view.
    Lean manufacturing as diffused now remains only a part of original Toyota Production System. As i explained in my book – in french- , Lean concept as explained now forgot “just in time” pillar.
    The second point is that workshop and team are the core of TPS organization. Improvement actions have also to begin in workshop.
    Main goal is to obtain results and to ensure ” Results culture” diffusion.
    These are the keys points i suggest you to remember.
    Sincerely yours,
    Yves Mille

  3. Melissa noble says:

    It is not only hard to implement Lean, it is hard to go into an environment that doesn’t practice it. All issues stated in the article are in fact very true. Very
    Very good read.

  4. Mike Carnell says:

    I have been involved with companies on most of the continents around the world and a fair number that are unionized. I have only seen one real issue and it was an individual who was a union member but he did not represent the union with regards to this issue. Most of the time we get up a meeting with the people managing the union immediately so there is no time for stories to spread, Those meetings are primarily for us to listen and respond when we are asked directly. It is dead important thaqt they understand you are interested in their concerns and that is hard to do if you spend all of your time talking. Subsequent meetings we spend more time talking but still primarily listening. When we set up a design team to lay out a deployment the union is also represented so they understand exactly what the plan is and they are part of it. In the 90’s when this whole thing got started there were union representatives at conferences long before we saw management teams at conferences. The cool thing about the union people was they stayed through the conference rather than ducking out early to play golf. I am not pro nor anti union. The company is what it is and we work within those constraints but up to this point I have never had an issue with a union as long as a showed them the respect of communicating with them.

  5. Davide says:

    I agree with the article. I think that the most Dangerous enemy to Lean Thinking is fear. Usually people – productive operators at first – don’t agree the change because they associate this idea to bad experiences. It’s normal that peolple don’t want to leave what they know very well – even if imperfect-for unkonown!
    Communication is the best pratice for success. It’s important to explain to everyone targets and doing daily and weekly controls to show improvments.

  6. Lawwrence Grasso says:

    The key is the first principle of lean management and lean thinking: respect for people. If management treats workers as costs to be reduced and the union as the enemy to be beaten down or eliminated, there is no respect for people. Wherever an adversarial relationship between labor and management is part of the current culture, there will be a lack of trust, and trust cannot be established by management edict. Trust has to be earned over time through actions – actions demonstrating a cooperative relationship and an effort to bring Union leaders in as partners in the lean transformation.

  7. Brian Mc Carthy says:

    I think that the answer would be it depends upon the company/management and union employee emvironment. From my experience, we had success training and implementing employees in a Lean & Continuous Improvements within a Wisconsin UAW environment during the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s. However, the success we had was due to ongoing teamwork involving both company management and union members together from the very beginning. Trust and honesty was very important for both sides during the initial 5 years of the Lean Implementation. An important point to remember is that in reality unions would never have become so necessaary, if owners/management hadn’t mistreated their employees!

    A long-term successful Lean Enterprise Transformation System (LETS) is a never ending Continuous Improvement Journey requiring teamwork, commitment and employee involvement at all orgamizational levels!

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