In case you missed it on page 24, Sam Gould, a longtime consultant at Enterprise Minnesota, likes to tell the story about a manufacturing client who expressed repeated frustration with a young employee who consistently underperformed minimum expectations on the production floor. He told Sam he was about to tell the young man, “Why don’t we find you a dust mop somewhere?”

Sam suggested the manager reconsider. Rather than reject (and lose) the employee, Sam asked the client to consider the enormous investment of time and treasure it would take to identify, recruit and retain that employee’s replacement, presuming you could even find one. Why not step back and figure out how to develop the full potential of the employee you have?

A Bemidji-based engineer, Sam is a lean pioneer who’s been teaching continuous improvement to Minnesota’s manufacturers from its earliest days. He has achieved an iconic stature at Enterprise Minnesota because he wraps his cutting-edge knowledge of manufacturing processes in old-fashioned common sense (and delivers it with an often-hilarious sense of humor).

Within the increasing sophistication of lean, he says, “Respect is a crucial element.” You can dismiss a struggling employee, or you can look to find the full potential of that employee. “And when you use that tactic, you’re looking to see what value that person can bring to the organization. That’s a conversation that will help you make a low performer a 90/100 percent person.” What’s more, he adds, “that same tactic can help your high performers increase their value.”

Sam was one of four Enterprise Minnesota consultants who used a roundtable discussion during a recent daylong staff retreat for our employees to analyze how empowering people has become a bedrock principle of increasing relevance in lean manufacturing and continuous improvement.* That conversation was then edited into the cover story for this issue of Enterprise Minnesota.

My takeaway from their presentation— “What you have might be all you need”—should hold particular relevance to manufacturers who are entering 2019 with ever-higher levels of apprehension about where their next generation of employees is going to come from.

At the other end of Sam’s employee worldview are the often-grizzled longtime production employees who can be somewhat set in their ways. Sam calls them the C.A.V.E. men, “Citizens Against Virtually Everything.” These are folks whose long tenure on a plant floor often breeds a certain skepticism about what they might consider the latest shiny objects thrust upon them by their managers.

Far from dismissing their input when trying to create a lean culture, Sam advises managers to embrace them.

“They’ve been through a lot of activities that didn’t deliver,” Sam told us. “They know just saying it doesn’t mean anything. They won’t see value until they feel it, smell it, hold it, and see it in action. I’ve learned that you don’t jettison the C.A.V.E. man. In fact, you don’t leave on your journey without one, because they’re the ones who will bring the ballast to it.”

Early lean instructors once advised clients to jettison C.A.V.E. men from the process of implementing lean because it was not worth the hassle of enduring their questions. “I thought that was disrespectful because I’m a C.A.V.E. man,” Sam says. His view is that the C.A.V.E. man could be the most important cog in leaning up operation. “They’re the ones asking the questions that you’re not ready to answer, which can be frustrating,” he added. But the reason behind their questions has ultimate value: what value is the activity trying to accomplish?

In other words, they’re strategic.

The roundtable discussion left a lasting impression on the staff, not only for its insights but for the wisdom and subtle discernment of the panelists who presented those ideas. The Bible may teach us you can’t be a prophet in your own tribe, but that doesn’t mean you can’t impress your colleagues. It showed me the end of 2018 presents an excellent time to assess—and appreciate—the value of your colleagues. Chances are you are surrounded by some really talented folks whose importance shouldn’t be taken for granted. (If you aren’t, think about finding another team. I’m told the job market is quite good these days.)

*Not for nothing, the meeting was hosted by the folks at Olsen Thielen, our newest State of Minnesota platinum-level sponsor! Thank you very much.

Featured story in the Winter 2018 issue of Enterprise Minnesota magazine. 

Return to Winter 2018 magazine