If you are following a complicated list of directions to get somewhere, and you make a wrong turn late in the journey you can easily ask directions and get to your destination. However, if the first turn you make is wrong – you go the wrong way right out of your driveway, you are doomed. When you make the last turn you are so far from your destination no one can help you. That is the sad case of the Harvard professor who has dedicated is research to proving Toyota wrong.
You can read the summary of Harvard Assistant Professor of Business Administration Ethan Bernstein’s work here in an article Hiding From Managers Can Increase Your Productivity; or if you have absolutely nothing worthwhile to do with your time you can suffer through the long-winded academic version here. The gist of his work is:
He snuck a handful of his buddies into a factory in China as production workers, and the folks working along side them told his spies to sandbag – to not show management the tricks and techniques they had developed to get stuff made faster than the standards. From that he concluded:
“Companies all over the world have striven for transparency in the workplace, literally tearing down walls in an effort to let managers and employees observe each other. Take, for example, one of the 14 key principles of The Toyota Way, Toyota Motor Corp.'s managerial philosophy: ‘Use visual control so no problems are hidden.’ But recent research proves the virtue of letting employees do at least some work unobserved. In a series of studies, Harvard Business School Assistant Professor Ethan S. Bernstein shows that decreasing the observation of employees can increase their productivity.”
The good professor made a couple of wrong turns right from the get-go. For one, the concept of visual control is not about making it easy for managers to observe production folks. Perhaps “The idea was that watching the workers would help managers improve operations and replicate innovations on one line across others, thus increasing productivity and driving down production costs,” at the plant in China where Bernstein conducted his experiment, but that is not “the idea” at Toyota, or at any lean operation practicing visual control. It is about alerting the operators themselves to problems so they can solve them, and alerting management o situations in which they can help - but it is not about how "managers can improve operations".
The root of Professor Bernstein’s taking the wrong turn seems to be that he had the map upside down. He worries about “hierarchical control” – even citing Frederick Taylor; and about “meaningful information flows up the organization”. He thought the map looked like this:
When, in fact, at Toyota and at lean companies using visual controls effectively, it actually looks like this:
It has been my experience and observation that folks running plants in China not only read from right to left but they construct org charts upside down. The whole 'servant leadership' concept has yet to reach Chinese shores, so the primary purpose for transparency in a Chinese factory is very likely to be all about top down control; and it seems a safe assumption that the Chinese workers operated under some sort of quota system.
From the academic tome version: “They expect us to finish so much in so little time. We need these extras to actually meet the target. Think about it, when they increase our units-per-hour (UPH) targets, the kaizen engineers, supporters, and line leaders come and help us with production. Once we reach the target, they all leave. For that UPH to be sustainable, we sometimes have to have extras. The total quality control (TQC) charts say that each station can only have one worker, but what’s wrong with people helping each other when they have extra time? But these things we need to hide from the management.”
That is the sort of thing you hear in third world cheap labor factories … and in western plants led by the unenlightened where quotas and piecework prevail … where the pointy end of the org chart is on top and managers ‘control’ people … where they think they are lean because they have retitled their old-school Frederick Taylor industrial engineers “kaizen engineers” and task them with figuring out ways to squeeze more production from folks … and those folks have a strong incentive to hide their own methods improvements from management.
The professor made the common mistake of plucking one aspect of the Toyota Production System out of the mix – visual controls – putting it into an old-timey Chinese factory and proclaiming, “Aha! It doesn’t work.” He completely missed the cultural context in which it does work. He looked at Toyota and lean principles and completely missed the concepts of Respect for People and Servant Leadership. In that context - in that culture - people don't need to hide improvement ideas from management because they are not afraid management will use those ideas to squeeze more work from them, and to take money from their pockets.
Like taking that wrong turn right from the start, it doesn’t much matter what you do next when you make that sort of fundamental mistake at the outset. The journey is going to take you nowhere worth going.