You're Killin' Me Smalls - Part II

In Part I, I shared a challenge I faced early in my career as a new quality control (QC) supervisor. I was increasingly exasperated with the daily barrage of problems brought to me from every direction, and recognized that wasn’t a healthy attitude for the QC supervisor. I needed solutions to both the barrage and the exasperation. I landed on a short-term approach to deal with the barrage that I shared in the previous post, which had to do with better frontline problem-solving. That approach wasn’t unusual. I was able to see a solution that made sense and implemented a policy change. That’s just command-and-control strategy, which isn’t the one-size-fits-all strategy many think it is. At that time, I had just read that management guru Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” I suspected my long-term approach to deal with exasperation (mine and others') had to address culture. Understand how young and inexperienced I was at the time. Barely 23, I was still making my way through college at night, and I had no supervisor training beyond the company’s introductory course. Worse, at least for me, I wasn’t clicking with some of the other supervisors who had spent way more years than me working in the plant before being promoted. Sometimes I felt like Scotty Smalls in his awkward coming of age moments.

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You might think the job of setting culture belonged to our plant manager, or to our regional VP. These were our presumptive leaders, but culture isn’t limited to the realm of big titles or the C-suite. Everyone in our plant, just like everyone in every environment, has a hand in creating and sustaining its culture. In every workplace our cultural leaders are those who show up and rise up because they have the ability to change minds and hearts. They’re influencers others recognize as examples worth learning from and emulating, because cultural leaders have heart. I wanted to be one of those kinds of influencers, someone who won over the minds and hearts of the other supervisors and their teams. I didn’t want to manipulate others as part of some grand command and control plan. I just wanted us to all work better together so that we produced a product that conformed to specifications (the basic definition of quality). Although I had no clear idea how to change our culture to one with a spirit of cooperation and collaboration that wanted to produce quality products, I was willing to give any reasonable idea a try. The management books at the time weren’t of much help because they were all about command and control. I wound up finding clues, and my eventual approach, from an entirely unexpected direction: the spiritual dimension and journey that I had begun to intentionally and actively engage a year or so before starting the QC supervisor role. I saw it was making meaningful improvements in me personally and thought it could do the same in others. Back then I didn’t have the vocabulary around interpersonal relations or emotional intelligence (although I was developing those skills), nor did I use words that have since become common even in the workplace such as gratitude, mindfulness, empathy, and compassion. The baby step I was learning on my spiritual journey at that time, however, was about being cared for and caring for others. As difficult as it was for me personally – and it was difficult – on this part of the spiritual journey, I was beginning to accept that I was a worthy human being and worthy of being cared for. By example and extension, if I was worthy of being cared for then so was every other human, including everyone in our manufacturing plant. Care and Caring. Therein lay my simple clues and enough to get me started on my long-term solution. I started with viewing and thinking of all my co-workers as human beings worthy of being cared for, instead of either my enemies or plug ‘n play tools on sub-assembly and assembly lines (and I confess I had days when that was a challenge, as I suspect they had their days where they thought the same about me). With a little practice I found myself using words like “care” and sentences like, “I care about making your job easier, let’s see how we can fix this.” No magical switch flipped that changed our culture from coarse and combative to rainbows and hugs, but within a few weeks of practicing care for others my weekly QC reports revealed a decrease in QC complaints and defects. Over the following weeks that decrease in defects turned into a trend. Within a few months I began to see others regularly using words like “care” and sentences like, “I care. Let’s try to fix this,” as we lurched toward an improved culture that supported our strategies and goals rather than eat them. Reflecting back on this early career lesson, which I’ve successfully repeated time and again from construction sites to the C-suite, I marvel at how caring for others is a significant but easily overlooked key to everything we strive so hard and diligently for in the workplace. Bonus! Caring is free and not another expense. In fact, in the long run it usually reduces expenses. In our book Better Capitalism, the universality and benefits of caring shows up in stories like, “It’s Crazy, Right?” and our constructs of Partnership Ethic and Partnership Economics. We invite you to pickup a copy of Better Capitalism for a deeper look into how the simple act of caring is an overlooked key to that more ethical and profitable form of capitalism we see as collectively ours for the taking.

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