Human life is a terrible thing to waste: Reflections on AME's Boston Conference

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

AME Author, Boston Conference Chair

In Boston, we were blessed with a few keynote speeches that were both thought provoking and soul stirring. Upon returning to the Chicago area, I reflected on what I had gotten out of the experience: it had reminded me of what had made me fall in love with lean over 35 years ago.

Fundamentally, lean values human life beyond just breathing— it ensures that people are able to live up to their full potential. 

Of course this is of great benefit to organizations, but it’s also rooted in the value of each person contributing to his or her highest ability.

Lean moves beyond the hierarchies of leadership.

In one of my conversations at the conference, I found myself reflecting upon the beginning of my journey. I had completed one week of training.

Having learned about the principles of waste, I returned to my job in the corporate benefits department. That was when I learned my first key lesson.

I looked to my right and noticed that the file clerk was filing paperwork that didn’t need to be filed on 6,000 employees. I knew that each of those pieces of paper had another potential copy somewhere else, and that we very rarely needed any of that paperwork.

But this story is not about paperwork.

It’s about the file clerk.

She had a name: Betty. 

As a person, Betty was being ‘wasted.’

After we removed her from her file clerk duties, she was assigned to a work assignment that was much more interesting to her while creating real value for the company.

The second key lesson I learned as a young woman was that the hierarchy between managers and non-managers was largely to blame for the waste of people’s capabilities.

It became obvious that many people (if not all of them) have great ideas and the ability to make a difference, yet their jobs are not structured in a way that allows them to do so.

At the conference, David Marquet drove home the same point.

He called out how we severely underutilize people, driving home the idea that typical organizational structures keep people down.

And for what?

I continued learning lessons for years after that (and am still learning!), and those lessons always drive home this point: we are literally wasting human life, and lean is the answer for that.

One of the other talks in Boston that had a profound impact on me was Paul Akers’ keynote address.

His basic premise was that we need to have all of our people fully engaged and free to make improvements every day.

It left me wondering why we have so many ‘tools’ to prevent this from happening. What is in the way?

These 3 key factors are what drive people to not fully utilize the talent they have to make the improvements organizations (and people) need:

  1. A belief in tools. There often seems to be a focus on the methods used instead of a focus on each person who represents an opportunity for improvement.
  2. Slowness of managers to truly allow people to make improvements. The fact that managers often don’t want employees to step out and make changes still takes my breath away. There is comfort when things don’t change. There is comfort when managers know exactly what to expect and are fully “in charge.”
  3. Fear of loss of control. They call it “commanding control” for a reason. Even if they want to, I find that a company’s leadership teams are often ill-prepared to help employees make improvements. They’re not encouraging them and allowing them the time and voice required. Part of this certainly stems from a fear of loss of control: if employees are fully empowered to make improvements and create change, where does that leave me?

My last key takeaway from the conference came from Raye Wentworth of New Balance. I was touched by her journey and the passion she had for her work.

In essence, this work is about freeing the abilities of people to make a difference.

She spoke to this in a way that was authentic and, even more importantly, humble. 

I found myself a bit teary eyed in the face of her true leadership of her team and her awareness that her role as their leader is to free them to make the changes that serve their business so well.

This conference brought me back to my first moments of loving lean. As a young professional, I saw waste, removed it, and then saw humanity shine through.

If you take nothing else away from this blog/email, remember this: human life is a horrible thing to waste.

I encourage you to look at the people in your organization. Are you wasting them?

Here are 3 questions to ask yourself today?

  •     If we have less than 100 percent participation, what is it we’ve told ourselves is the reason for that?
  •     What is in the way of having people actively reducing waste?
  •     Are your leaders leading with the humility that you know is needed to allow people to be their best and make their greatest contribution?