When was the last time you noticed a “frontline” issue where you work? Whether you work in a hospital, a manufacturing plant, or a grocery store, there will always be problems impacting productivity and profitability that frontline workers deal with daily. Observation and documentation of these issues are the first and most straightforward steps in solving them. A good company trains its managers to seek areas for improvement and report back on what they observe. They go to the Gemba. But what happens to these problems once they're identified? Who’s involved in the brainstorming process, and why is it not the right people?
More often than not, a team of executives is apprised of a situation and asked to analyze a defective process or behavior and implement a solution. They collect the data, look at what their competitors are doing, crunch the numbers, and develop a solution that looks excellent on paper and makes sense from an executive leadership perspective. Their solution is canonized as a company procedure, rolled out to the pertinent workgroups and locations, and it’s on to the next one. In theory, this method makes sense. Managers and executives are in those positions for a reason. They’re smart, capable individuals who have shown a knack for the business and how to lead it successfully. But have they ever sliced ham in a grocery store deli? Have they ever mopped the floors of an ICU hospital ward? Have they ever assembled a 6-speed bicycle? Why are we asking people to solve problems they don’t experience with their own two hands?
We must throw away this notion that someone with a fancy title is somehow qualified to solve every problem at their company. The current corporate culture encourages leadership to dismiss solutions that frontline employees bring to the table because they’re “just a nurse” or “just a butcher” or “just a janitor.” Those nurses and butchers and janitors are the ones who should be providing the solutions! They do the job eight hours a day, five days a week, 52 weeks a year. They are the most qualified to solve the problems they encounter every day. Usually, the people who are the most successful in those roles are the ones who have already come up with solutions to those challenges! But instead of seeking out those problem-solvers and encouraging them to share their ideas, we dismiss them in favor of executive-led initiatives that may or may not improve the process. Eventually, this approach discourages frontline problem solvers from innovating or leaving for a company that nourishes their ingenuity. It weakens the fabric of an organization and hurts its competitiveness in the market.
If you’re a manager and a leader in your organization, you’re going to find yourself being asked to solve frontline problems today, tomorrow, and every day after. It’s an integral part of your role. But, next time someone comes to you and asks, “how can we fix this?” look at them and say, “don’t ask me; that’s not my job.”