I recently had the opportunity to watch a value stream mapping training event in an administrative process. These types of events are enjoyable for me because I always learn something new. The lesson learned this time was quite unexpected.
The 15 or so people attending the class had already received instruction on value stream mapping as a tool. This event was to learn value stream mapping as a practice. The agenda was to go and see the process, gather information from the people in the process, map the value stream, and better understand the current state.
Not being a learner or instructor for this class, I found myself in a great position to simply watch. I wasn’t particularly concerned with the process being mapped or information being gathered. The instructor had that well under control. What caught my eye was the interaction and emotion.
We’re here to help
The learners in the class were on a mission to gather all of the pertinent information and draw the map in a limited amount of time. The people who worked in the process being mapped had been prepared to expect a large group to interview them about the process.
Saying “This is going to hurt” doesn’t make it hurt any less
Despite the preparation, the people being interviewed appeared to be uncomfortable, and in some cases downright defensive. They were at the receiving end of a barrage of questions about something very personal to them: their work. Of course the questions were asked with the best of intentions. It seemed, though, best intentions didn’t seem to help the situation. Some of the questions were something like “How long does it take you to do this?” or “Why does it take so long?”
The reactions were interesting and, at the same time, painful to watch. One person’s face turned red, eyes opened wide (as though the fight or flight mechanism had just kicked in), as his voice volume increased. At the same time his answers were slightly delayed as though he was choosing his words carefully. Another person was being interviewed while standing near a wall. He was casually holding a coffee cup. As the interview progressed, he backed himself against the wall and wrapped both hands arou
nd the cup at chest height in what appeared to be an effort to put something between himself and the people interviewing (or maybe interrogating) him.
It’s so easy to become consumed with the process and process improvement that we lose sight of how our best intentions affect others. Here are my takeaways from this experience.
- Lean tools are about people. Think of the people first. Their feelings matter.
- Explain why and help people become part of the improvement.
- Avoid language that implies or invites conflict. For example: “Tell me why you need so much time to do this? Instead, something like “What were the start and end times of the task?” might feel a bit more neutral.
- When learning or teaching lean tools, be sure to emphasize the human experience for all involved. The ideal state is that people feel better after participating in a continuous improvement effort rather than worse.
- Watch body language and facial expressions. Be attentive to voice volume and speech pattern changes. If people aren’t at least somewhat pleased to be speaking with you, consider the possibility something is going wrong and work to fix it.
I think a big part of why I was so sensitive to this was that I tend to be very direct and had been in the position to make others feel uncomfortable or defensive in situations like this myself. I feel terrible for having done that. I also feel grateful for the reminder to think about respect for people first.