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The Lean Law of Unintended Consequences

The Law of Unintended Consequences has typically and historically referred to economic or political intervention into complex systems that creates unanticipated and often undesirable social outcomes. However, not all unintended consequences are negative; often there can also be unexpected benefits.

Every organization and every company is a very complex system of people, processes and sub-systems. We inject lean principles and practices into our complex business systems every day with a certain set of expected outcomes. I think it would be safe to say that one key lean principle is employee empowerment giving employees the opportunity to contribute.  I think it’s also safe to say that we expect that some of those employees will surprise us with their imagination, creativity, and capabilities that had not previously been given a chance to surface and blossom.  I recently became aware of a benefit that, if you had asked me to develop a list of expected benefits, would not have been on my list.

Several years ago I had the good fortune to meet and get to know a wonderful young man, let’s call him Bill.  It was clear that Bill wasn’t highly educated or even highly skilled. It was equally clear that he was a very hard worker and he took his job very seriously.  Bill’s job was in the sanitation department of a plant that’s dirty, messy and even toxic by its’ nature. Bill’s job was as a member of the sanitation crew responsible for sweeping and mopping floors and generally keeping the plant and the offices clean.  A clean environment in this case is more important to the health of the employees than in most organizations.  Additionally, the cleanliness of the plant and offices are monitored and audited by a variety of regulatory agencies.

The organization created a waste elimination program and Bill was an active contributor often surfacing excellent suggestions. It was evident that Bill had a lot more going for him than expected and Bill remained a valued employee in his current position.  His willingness to contribute and some obvious hidden talents were enough to make a difference in his day-to-day job but not enough to make a difference in his position.  Although not by design, Bill got exposed to team problem solving and even some process improvement.  Bill was even asked to develop some standards for his responsibilities and others in the department and he led the development of several departmental SWI’s. He even got an unusual opportunity to work with the quality group to help assess the impact of the environment on product quality. So what’s the unexpected consequence?

Bill was at a level of the organizational ladder where professional development wasn’t really discussed and he certainly didn’t have a professional development plan that is typical for a manager, supervisor or even a team lead.  The “unintended consequence” of Bill’s exposure to the principle and practices of lean was his unplanned and even unspoken professional development.  Today Bill is still a great guy but also a very effective supervisor of the sanitation and laundry departments. I am certain he would still be sweeping floors had he not been exposed to lean.  I don’t know how far Bill can go in the organization but I wouldn’t bet against him moving up.  Empowerment will surface the hidden gem in your company and we typically respond by trying to figure out how we can further support and develop them.  It’s important to recognize that you are already developing the hidden gems even if they don’t surface.  Your next supervisor is there somewhere hidden in those lean experiences; you just need to identify them.

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