Stay Close to the Front Line

Early in my career I took ownership for an assembly line. Our output was half of target and the average unit was reworked more than once. I was new to the job and to the field. Not knowing where else to start, I decided to get trained on the processes and jump in to work on the line.

I thought I would gain deep understanding of the assembly process and be able to pinpoint how to fix our problems. That wasn’t quite how it turned out; my time on the line proved critical for a different reason. One day, an assembler demonstrated to me how a critical tool failed to appropriately align key parts, leading to rework. Another time, an associate explained to me how the way shift performance was evaluated led to first shift undermining second shift, and vice versa. A few weeks in, a veteran shift lead brought me a full-page handwritten list of requested changes—every one of which was on target. Armed with these insights into what was wrong, we were able to make changes allowing that assembly line to succeed.

Subsequent experiences have rarely been so dramatic. But I have seen the same principle play out repeatedly: if you want to know what’s wrong, spend time with the front line. While you can’t be sure of getting answers or solutions, you can be certain of gaining a much better understanding of symptoms and causes. You are guaranteed to be closer to the ground truth than if you remain firmly in the land of spreadsheets and reports.

This is particularly important for large organizations. The bigger a group gets, the more likely it will be for news to get filtered as it moves up the chain. Senior leaders will hear lots of good and little bad. The extent of this effect will vary by organization, but its existence is inevitable. Leaders need to actively build mechanisms to lift up rocks and see the problems crawling underneath.

What might this look like? You could set up a program for managers to regularly spend time actually working parts of the jobs they oversee. You could create roundtable conversations that regularly bring you and other leaders into contact with cross sections of the front-line workforce. You could build mechanisms to take ideas from the front line and close the loop with actions to make their job better.

That last thought is an important note to end on. Being close to the front line in order to learn is helpful and necessary. Even better is to take that opportunity to meaningfully improve the jobs of those on that front line. Remove obstacles, reduce frustrations, clarify confusion. Stay close to the ground truth, and do what you can to make that ground be a better place.

Comments and questions are welcome via this LinkedIn post, or direct to me: benj (at) principledoperations.com. Subscribe to receive future posts in your email.
Photo credit: Sulyok Imaging, used with permission from Unsplash.

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