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Do Cell Phones Reduce or Benefit Continuous Improvement Productivity?

Posted by Mark Graban

May 16, 2014 1:05:00 PM

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"Of course mobile devices can help improve safety and productivity." That's one thing I said to a reporter who interviewed me for this article about mobile devices in the workplace: Boeing limits workers' use of smartphones, iPods.

Our KaiNexus iPhone app, a companion to our main web-based application, is a useful tool for capturing and reporting problems, risks, and opportunities for improvement in the workplace. KaiNexus users can quickly and simply log a problem, any idea they have for fixing it, and even include a picture taken by their phone.

I’d hate to see these helpful devices and apps like ours banned altogether from a workplace.

The news story discusses that Boeing is trying to prevent distractions that could lead people to trip and fall. Additionally, when people are distracted, that’s when quality and safety tends to suffer. Safety has to come first, in all aspects of a workplace, otherwise we won’t be able to engage people to improve either safety or productivity.

According to the article, Boeing has created "safe zones" where such devices can be used. It's important to put safety first, and to be consistent in that approach. The "safe zone” is probably a good compromise compared to an alternative of banning them altogether.

Critics say that Boeing is more concerned about the productivity loss that occurs when people use Facebook or play games on their smartphones. As I said in the article, I think employees wasting time is a management problem (or a behavior problem), not a technology problem. Banning a technology doesn’t get to the root cause of that problem. We need a highly productive workplace since that’s the main thing that, along with quality, ensures our jobs are safe in the long run. But, we can’t have a workplace with draconian rules about never talking and never having fun. We have to find the balance.

Mobile Technologies Have Evolved

Technology and our workplace has evolved a lot in the 20 years I've been out of college. In my first jobs, we weren't allowed to have cameras at work (which would have been film-based). Cell phones, if anybody had them, were something that you plugged into your car's cigarette lighter (hence the name “car phone”).

In the early 2000s, mobile phones became more common and one factory I worked in banned camera phones (as bad as they were at the time) due to concerns about confidential information being leaked or stolen. There are similar concerns in hospitals today with fears of hospital staff members taking inappropriate pictures of patients or leaking protected patient information. Violations like that are punishable under threat of lawsuit, or in healthcare the HIPAA law. Again, these are behavior problems, not technology problems.

In this day and age, it would be really difficult for an employer to ban phones altogether, unless you work in a defense-related job with national security clearance. People rely on their phones as a lifeline to their children and family and to get weather emergency warnings. Phones are very helpful and they are a reality in the workplace, even if managers are concerned about safety and productivity losses,

Creating a Culture Where People Use Mobile Devices for Good

Safety comes first. Of course that should be the philosophy. But, managers have to be consistent. They won't build trust with employees if they ban phones for safety reasons but look the other way when there's unsafe equipment or bad workplace practices that aren't being addressed. Without trust, improvement won’t happen and we’ll have a combative workplace.

When employees use KaiNexus on an iPhone, in a safe area and at an appropriate time, they can report safety problems by entering an Opportunity for Improvement into our KaiNexus platform. Then, managers need to take action and help solve these safety problems as soon as possible. Employees can also report problems that interfere with quality or productivity. Highly engaged employees in a collaborative environment will work with management to improve safety, quality, and productivity.

To the productivity concerns… if we ban smart phones, people will find other ways to waste time because we haven’t gotten to the root cause of why people are disengaged and unhappy at work. Look at the human voice as a technology. Talking can be productive (pointing out a problem, calling over a supervisor, or collaborating on an improvement) or talking can be a time waster (shooting the breeze and telling jokes). Talking face to face can create legal liabilities if those jokes are offensive or inappropriate! But, we don't ban talking in the workplace. Managers need to coach people on avoiding bad behaviors and correct people when they are being inappropriate.

If managers create a workplace culture where safety and productivity are everybody's concern, then people will use mobile devices and technologies like the KaiNexus iPhone app responsibly for the benefit of all. That's what we see in a culture of continuous improvement. If Toyota were a customer, we'd want people to abide by their safety rules, as mentioned in the article, which would include not walking and texting - or walking and KaiNexus-ing - on their iPhone.

Topics: Innovation Software

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