Respect by Sharing Knowledge

First surfboarding lessons

Gaining knowledge is the first step to wisdom.
Sharing knowledge is the first step to humanity.
– Unknown

Well over a decade ago when I became president of a medical device company, I already had many years of Lean experience. I knew what fundamentals needed to be put in place, what systems needed improvement, and what knowledge needed to be transferred.  Or so I thought.

Instead of ordering this or that program to be implemented, I decided to help our team identify problems and point them to potential solutions. For example, when we were taking too much time to find production supplies, I suggested they consider using a Lean concept known as 5S. Instead of teaching them everything myself, I let the team take charge of implementing it. The team embraced this management style: first they learned about 5S, and then they implemented what they learned. We repeated this process with several other Lean concepts. They would go and learn about it, and I would coach them on implementation.

I shared my knowledge and experience, but a funny thing happened along the way: the team also taught me some new methods they had identified and developed.  And they taught me to ask “why?” and “what problem are we trying to solve?” before just blindly implementing a new tool. As our team at Gemba Academy knows, I still struggle with focusing on the “why?” while getting a little too enamored with a new method or technology.  In fact, it just happened again yesterday.

Our transformation probably took longer than some, but I believe it was more rooted in understanding and would therefore be more lasting and resilient.  In the end, there were still a couple of changes I needed to dictate, one being the morning standup meeting. The team did not think that adding a new daily meeting would be beneficial. Who would? But when I made the meeting mandatory, I also let them know exactly why it was being done, why it was important to me, and what results we should expect from it. Within a few weeks they also saw the value, and I know that it continues to this day, more than three years after I left the company.

Another thing we did at the company was to emphasize employee training. People want to learn, and it’s a measure of your respect for them (and their brains) that you provide opportunities for them to learn. I’ve seen far too many organizations that believe it is too expensive to send employees to conferences, workshops, and other events. Yes, it costs money, but those folks come back motivated and wanting to improve! Isn’t that worth a couple grand? If you cannot recapture the investment of a conference or workshop, you aren’t asking enough of your team.

Every year, I sent quite a few employees to events, choosing people that had demonstrated a passion for learning as well as some that I thought could learn a lot if they were appropriately motivated and respected. In each case, I asked them to come back with three to five ideas that we should implement now, as well as three to five ideas that were pretty cool and we should keep in mind for the future. They presented these ideas to our leadership team as a group, and it was then up to us to evaluate and implement them.

The process was difficult, but the new ideas easily paid for the trips, many times over. Properly nurtured, the employees who had gone to the trainings became forceful proponents for improvement. I encourage you to consider high value conferences like the Association for Manufacturing Excellence and Lean Frontiers events.

Similarly, at Gemba Academy we’re often amazed at organizations, some with incredible resources, that question the value of a site-wide license to our 1000+ lean and six sigma training videos – for only $1995 per year.  Where else can potentially hundreds of people have unlimited access to that amount of knowledge for that cost?  We sometimes joke that if a company pays more for bottled water or toilet paper per employee than it does for training (of any kind), they have a prioritization problem.  If one employee, let alone many, can’t come up with an improvement idea worth a couple grand each year, the organization has other serious issues.

I’ve also learned a lot about recruiting over the years. I’ve had several failures where professionals with great experience and resumes ended up not being the right fit. I have learned that the best predictor of executive success, more than experience, education, references, or personality, is the ability to share and teach new knowledge. More specifically, executives should have a craving for new knowledge, the capability to distill the knowledge, and an ability to effectively share the knowledge. Those types of individuals are few and far between, but they are incredibly valuable and can radically change an organization.

To respect people, you must recognize and leverage the potential value of people’s brains. To optimize that value, you must share your experience, skills, and knowledge. Sharing is respecting people.