“Innovation comes from people meeting up in the hallways or calling each other at 10:30 at night with a new idea, or because they realized something that shoots holes in how we’ve been thinking about a problem.” So said the late Steve Jobs of Apple. He was right.
I started my first “real” job in the 1970s. As a newly minted design engineer for a bottling-machinery-manufacturing company, I worked amid a sea of drafting tables in a Dickensian-style space lorded over by a Chief Engineer sitting behind a large window in an elevated room. From that lofty vantage point, he saw everything and nothing at the same time.
Should a young engineer’s mind wander in the direction of an inventive or innovative thought, you would hear a sharp rapping noise on the window’s plate glass, and see a curling finger beckoning you to visit “the boss” in his lair. Standing in the office of shame, you could expect your mandatory rebuke to always end with this ridiculous admonition: “You are paid to work, not to think!”
This, of course, took place back in the days of manual drafting procedures that depended on slide rules, logarithmic tables, etc. Calculators and computers had not yet made their way into the engineering office.
In the company’s anti-collaborative, no-talking-allowed environment, if you weren’t writing, sketching, calculating, referencing a book or drawing, you were found guilty of not working. Thinking had to be done on your own time—or as you moved a pencil over paper. Communication and the collaborative sharing of ideas had to be done during breaks or after work. It was a very different time.
Fast-forward three decades
Although I may have included details of the following story in previous columns, they are essential to this month’s discussion:
Thirty years ago, I was invited into a plant to help implement a new, efficient maintenance approach. Alas, numerous complaints had been made about the site’s maintenance personnel not being team players. They were apparently rude and arrogant, and flagrantly broke a corporate “no coffee” rule. Many had been written up regarding their use of department computers for personal reasons and—gasp—for drinking coffee in the shop. Delving into the matter, I spoke to those who had received warnings and the manager who had issued them.
As it turned out, the complaining party was none other than the plant manager—who regularly used the maintenance area as a shortcut between his office and the plant floor. On several occasions, he had noticed maintenance personnel “hanging” around a computer, drinking coffee and talking when they should have been working.
Speaking with the maintenance team, I learned that every day at the shift change, members of the outgoing crew would stay around for five to 10 minutes to meet with the incoming shift and discuss outstanding work issues. During those times, they would refer to the computerized work-order system for reports and work-order copies.
The incoming shift would bring in coffee and donuts as an incentive for the outgoing shift to stay behind. Nobody thought they were breaking a “no-coffee” rule: After all, they were in their own workspace (where they typically took their breaks). Besides, the plant manager always seemed to be drinking coffee as he walked briskly through the area (and typically threw his paper cup into the maintenance shop trash bin.) Not surprisingly, morale had sunk to an all-time low among the team members as a result of what
they considered a punitive response to their positive initiative.
Apprised of the maintenance team’s perspective, the plant manager admitted he had never sought to clarify what the crews were actually doing in their impromptu meetings—or why they insisted on drinking coffee in front of him. Nor had he realized how contradictory his own coffee consumption habits looked to his employees.
Turning a wrong into a right
The maintenance department used its shop for coffee breaks because the plant cafeteria—located at the other end of the facility—stopped serving hot food when formal plant break-time was over.
On the other hand, the teams staggered their breaks, out of sequence with the rest of the plant. This scheduling provided regular planned outages, during which time the crews would perform 15-minute pit-stop-style maintenance checks and tasks on available assets (an innovative approach in itself). Thus, it made little sense for team members to make the long, inconvenient trek to and from the site’s cafeteria.
Upon learning what his maintenance teams had actually been doing—on their own time, for the good of the business—the plant manager convened an interactive brainstorming workshop. There, he apologized for his lack of awareness and withdrew all complaints. Management and maintenance then worked together to establish a maintenance “think room” that would allow them a space to collaborate on their own terms for future initiatives.
This “think room” was constructed within the maintenance shop on a 20 x 20 footprint. It features low-energy fluorescent lighting (in a daylight spectrum that’s known to reduce fatigue and increase productivity) that shines onto low-sheen, all-white walls. The wall facing into the shop is windowed. Over the entrance door hangs a sign that reads “Innovation Starts Here.”
Inside the room are a coffeemaker, snack vending machine and microwave. A conference-style table can accommodate eight people. The library corner displays maintenance magazines and reference books. Two computer stations with Web access are available for research purposes.
Two of the room’s walls are covered floor to ceiling in whiteboards. One of them, dubbed the “information wall,“ is dedicated to shift-transfer and planning and scheduling information. The other whiteboard wall, known as the “think wall,” is dedicated to a specific type of brainstorming: A maintainer can identify a problem, and others (i.e., maintenance-team members or outsiders) can suggest possible solutions. Each problem can stay posted and elicit comments for one week. The owner of the problem then reviews it and any suggested solutions with the maintenance team group for follow-up.
Within a couple of months of setting up this room, the plant manager had stopped using the maintenance shop as a short cut. Instead, he started (and began attending) monthly meetings in the think room for maintenance updates. Coffee is no longer an issue—and outgoing shifts are paid an additional 15 minutes when they stay around for a changeover meeting.
As a result, problems seem to be identified more quickly. Operators, in fact, are invited to post comments on the solution wall, and be present during the follow-up discussion meetings. Maintenance is now recognized as an in-plant innovator group, and for its “think before action” approach to problem solving.
These days, I continue to recommend this type of “think room” idea to my industrial clients. Although dry-erasable paint and markers have taken the place of white boards—at a much lower cost, to boot—little has changed in the set-up and positive results: Thinking is working!
Does your organization allow room for thought? I hope so. Good Luck! MT