Unions are certainly 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.