What Are You Building?

By Jon Miller Published on September 13th, 2007

For those of us who are in manufacturers, or in some way involved in making things or helping others make things, we think in terms of what we build, the materials, tools and processes we use. How would you answer if you were asked “What are you building?” through your work, at your job, at your company?
There is a story of three masons hard at work on a hot day. The first looked miserable, and when asked what he was doing answered “I’m breaking my back all day working stone.” The second stone mason seemed more purposeful, and when asked what he was doing answered “I am building a wall.” The third stone mason was absolutely cheerful, smiling and working as if the heat did not bother him. When asked what he was doing, he said “I am building a cathedral.”
When I first heard this story it resonated with me. Too many times people working in traditional manufacturing are like the first stone mason, doing uncreative, boring and repetitive work, not building anything one would recognize other than a component. Even in the best cases, workers, engineers or even managers may only recognize that they are building a wall like the second stone mason, and never truly see how their end product makes the lives of end users better.
There should be a fourth mason, who is overflowing with joy, because he is not building a cathedral, but he is bringing joy, peace and comfort to people because he is building a place of worship. What are we building that truly matters? How can we teach people to think this way?
“We have to prepare people and help people develop themselves through the accumulation of experience by performing round and round of work day after day.”
These are the words of Shoichiro Toyoda, who called for “Building human beings by going through the process of building products.” He also said “skillful people thus developed can then rise up to yet greater product-building challenges. This is a continuous process of building human capability through OJT, or on-the-job training.”
Toyota says building things starts with building people. It’s hard to do this “one to many”. Leaders are supposed to be teachers, but who has time to teach so many people?
In the book The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains many common errors in thinking and the reasons for them. One of them involves the fact that people in sociological experiments repeatedly demonstrate that we are less able to empathize with the needs of larger groups than with that of individuals. We give less to 8 struggling people then we would to one struggling person. The fate of one child in a well is of far greater concern to us than the fate of hundreds of children in peril.
In some perverse way, this may be one piece flow processing of human compassion. When we attempt to “batch” compassion, the response is slow and the yield is poor. The good news is that it is easier to mentor one person than to mentor eight, and this is about what our brains let us process. If we can all help one person see that they can building something more than chipped stone, we can build something great.

  1. Alberto

    October 19, 2007 - 6:38 am

    This article got me thinking about how to really find an answer to ‘What am I Building?’
    We all know the 5 Why’s technique to go from the General problem to the particular root cause.
    But what if we could reverse this process, not to find a problem but to find a solution, a goal or an answer to ‘what are we building?’ maybe we could ask a reverse 3 Why’s for a Goalseeking technique.
    Why is he breaking his back?
    to build a wall
    Why is he building a wall?
    to build a Cathedral
    Why is he building a Cathedral?
    To bring joy, peace and comfort to people.

  2. Jon Miler

    October 21, 2007 - 9:20 pm

    Good idea Alberto. Purpose, “why” and cause are closely linked.

Have something to say?

Leave your comment and let's talk!

Start your Lean & Six Sigma training today.