What Can a Stapler Teach Us About Managing?

Photo 1: It looks like an ordinary stapler

I just threw out two staplers. They were the same. Ordinary staplers. (Photo 1).

Photo 1: It looks like an ordinary stapler

Photo 1: It looks like an ordinary stapler







But they didn’t work. You can see the problem in Photo 2. I’d get two staples pushed out, but not evenly. They wouldn’t both hold. Then it would take me a minute to clear the paper. It didn’t happen every time. About once every 10 staples. But it was frequently enough to annoy me.

Photo 2: Two staples at once, but only one went in correctly.

Photo 2: Two staples at once, but only one went in correctly.







Photo 3 shows another kind of failure. Two staples are started, but none come out and I was just left with unstapled paper and a jammed stapler. I adjusted my workspace and placed a small screw-driver on my desk so it was easier to clear the stapler. Even with the screwdriver, each jam took a minute to clear.

Photo 3: Two staples jammed in the mouth

Photo 3: Two staples jammed in the mouth








Why was this happening? Photo 4 shows why. Notice the gap between the front of the staple carrier and the bottom plate. This is where the staples are supposed to slide through. You’ll notice two things. First, they aren’t the same on both sides. Second, they’re bigger than a single staple. In fact, on the side at the bottom of the photo, the gap is nicely large enough for two staples. So when the spring really does its job and pushes the block of staples forward hard, two staples come out… and jam.

Photo 4: Notice the uneven gap at the front

Photo 4: Notice the uneven gap at the front









How does this help us think about managing?

How many “screwdrivers” do your staff have stashed away to “fix” a recurring problem?

How much time do your people lose every day because they are “dealing with” machinery or processes that build in rework, rather than building in quality? How much does it annoy them?

How many of your machines have built-in sources of variation that make work harder to do consistently, or that make your product less consistent for your customer?

And how much time have you spent in the last week observing the work your staff do, so that you can identify and fix these problems.

If you’re squirming a bit as you read these questions, you know who you are, and what you need to do.

If you or your managers and supervisors need some help knowing where to start or how to uncover and fix these kinds of problems, contact me at (604) 866-1502 (cell or text) or e-mail me at halley@firstlinetraining.ca.

What separates the winners at BC Export Awards?

Last fall I had the opportunity to attend the BC Export Awards. It was a nice lunch, but that wasn’t what got me excited.


Pinnacle Energy Plant – Quesnel BC

The stories of the finalists and the winners were exciting. Companies doing extraordinary things and succeeding in the international arena. Whether it was Greenlight Innovation (a finalist) or Pinnacle Energy (a winner), it was energizing to see what British Columbians can do.

The winners illustrated a pattern I first observed at an Innovation Awards event about 15 years ago. There were four common elements among the winners.

  1. They all went deep in their technology. They had mastered some core skills and carried that mastery across all their products.
  2. They all considered the world as their market from the start. These companies never imagined that Canada would provide a big enough market. Export wasn’t a nice to have for these businesses; it was as essential to them as breathing is to you and me.
  3. They all understood that business is a team sport, and a collaborative one. Each person who received an award made a point of thanking their team for making the win possible. And often they thanked partners outside their business.
  4. The fourth one is always a bit surprising; the winners consistently believed that what they were doing was making a difference in the world – both locally for their employees and suppliers, and globally for their customers. They saw the world as a better place because of what they were doing!

How can we use this at the front line? There are three actions any supervisor or manager can take immediately.

  1. Say thank you to your staff. Yes, it is their job. Yes, they get paid to be there. But they could go to work elsewhere. And there is a huge difference between someone being present – physically occupying space – and being engaged and involved. For that, you need to thank them. Every day isn’t too often. Just as you would thank someone for holding a door open for you.
  2. Let your staff know why their work matters. What is your “why?” When they know that, they can get behind what you’re doing. I once worked for a firm whose stated strategic goal was to double the income of the partners. It was pretty hard for the employees like me doing the daily work to get excited about making the partners richer. But if they had described their purpose, their reason-for-being in terms of helping clients sleep better, it would have been easier to be engaged.
  3. Focus on what the customer needs. Whenever you are talking to your team, and debating what action to take, bring the discussion back to the customer. What do they need? And then, how can we deliver that in a way that is profitable?

These are not big hard-to-do actions. They are daily steps that you can take. But they will make a difference.

If you would like to have a no-obligation conversation about simple daily actions that you and your supervisors can do to improve your performance, call or text Hugh at (604) 866-1502, or by e-mail at halley@firstlinetraining.ca.

Supervisor Administers Electric Shocks

James Lawther writes a great blog on process improvement. We’ve been commenting back and forth about some of his ideas and have decided to provide some guest blogs on each other’s sites. Here is the first. I’m delighted to be working with him.

Mad Scientist 4587871752_23521ec8b8_o

Mad Scientist or Bad Boss?

I’d like you to imagine that you are sitting in Starbucks drinking your favorite coffee, idly flicking through the pages of your local newspaper.

You stumble across an advert for a “Memory Study” at the psychology department of the local university. They are running hour-long experiments and want paid volunteers.
As you have nothing particular to do that day you decide to sign up.

The experiment
When you get to the University you are greeted by two men, a scientist in a white coat and another paid volunteer, just like you. The scientist explains that the experiment he is running is into memory, looking to see if pain has an impact on our ability to remember things.

The other volunteer is the “student”, he has already been given a series of words to remember. Your job is to be “teacher”, if the student gets the sequence wrong you are to give him an electric shock. The more he gets wrong the more severe the electric shock becomes.

The test starts
After a while the student gets one of his sequences wrong. So you press a red button and the student receives a mild shock, it makes him wince.
As the experiment goes on the voltage gets higher.

  • When it reaches 100 volts it makes the student grunt
  • He says it is hurting at 120 volts
  • He asks to stop the experiment at 150 volts

The scientist isn’t concerned though, he says, ”It won’t cause any long term physical damage.”

  • The student screams out loud at 200 volts
  • He refuses to continue at 300 volts — the scientist tells you to take silence as a wrong answer
  • The student sweats, kicks, screams, convulses and begs for mercy all the way up to 450 volts

Finally the researcher tells you to stop and thanks you for your help.

It is a nasty little story.

It would, of course, never have happened
But it did. Stanley Milgram ran exactly this set of experiments at Yale University in the 1960’s but with a slight twist.

The experiment wasn’t into the effects of pain on memory; it was a psychological experiment to understand how we respond to people in authority, in this case a scientist in a white coat. The “student” was an actor and there were no electric shocks, just a red button to push.

The study showed that without the scientist the “teachers” stopped administering the shocks very quickly. But when the scientist urged them on two thirds of “teachers” carried out the experiment right to the very end.

In 2002 the study was re-run. The results were the same.

The point of the story is simple
Your staff will do exactly what their supervisors tell them to do, they will strive to hit foolish targets, they will follow ridiculous processes and they will complete the most inane tasks. Your staff will do precisely what they are asked to do, no matter how ridiculous, incomprehensible or dumb.

Your supervisors have immense authority over your teams. Which is why it is really, really important to ensure they know what they are doing. Maybe a little training would be a good thing.


James Lawther writes about process improvement. You can read more at www.squawkpoint.com

Ever Seen a Premier use PDCA?

Robert GhizIn our local paper (Vancouver Sun) there was an article this weekend that caught my eye (you can read it here).

“P.E.I. Premier Robert Ghiz said that a recent review found that the existing jobs training programs in the provinces were succeeding in finding jobs for 86 per cent of participants, but that the federal government now wants to claw back money from premiers to create a new plan without doing any research.
“So the part that is the most disturbing is the federal government is actually taking a program that’s working and they’re saying: ‘Even though it works, we don’t care,’ ” Ghiz said at a joint news conference alongside the other premiers.
“It doesn’t fit with us ideologically. So guess what? We’re going to take that money away from you and we’re going to introduce this Canada Jobs Grant, and no we haven’t done any research on it and we’re just going to make it happen.”

This quote from Premier Ghiz is exciting because he is using the PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) process. He is looking for an expected outcome before changes are made. He is asking that there be a basis for thinking that a new set of actions will create a better outcome.

As managers and supervisors, this is what we should be doing in our organizations all the time. When something isn’t working, we figure out the root cause, and come up with a way to address the issue – a countermeasure. Then we figure out a way to test the idea. Before we actually do the test, we should state the outcome we expect. Then we do the test, and depending on the results, we may implement the change, or we may need to rethink our ideas.

It isn’t that we have a perfect plan worked out. It is just that we know what we’re expecting before we do the experiment.

Because that is what PDCA is about – a series of experiments; from each we learn a little more, and with each piece we learn, we get closer to our target – what we want to achieve.

In Ghiz’ case, he wants people to find jobs. So when 86% of participants are finding jobs (which is a very high percentage in the world of training), Ghiz rightly says, let’s have some data before we throw it out and replace it with something else.

You know how exasperating it is when your boss does that. So be different! Test your ideas. State what you expect in advance. Measure the result. And then choose whether to implement the idea.

Eiji Toyoda RIP

ku-xlargeEiji Toyoda died the other day at age 100. He made a great contribution to our world.

Toyoda, who was the longest serving president of the company that bears a slightly altered version of his name, Toyota Motor Corporation, had been instrumental in driving the adoption of the Toyota Production System, and of spreading it to other countries as the firm expanded.

We have much to learn from the lineage that starts with Henry Ford and Charles Allen, through the folks at the Training Within Industry Service that went to Japan after the war, to Toyoda and his colleagues. They have shown us that it is possible to have an organization continuously improve, and to have that as a mindset.

They were insistent that they have the Toyota Production System, not a Universal Production System, and often were curious that companies would try to copy their methods whole. Their methods were powerful, but each company’s needs are different, and Toyota has never been dogmatic that theirs is the only way to do things… just their way.

For all that, Eiji Toyoda provided a direction that we can learn from. May he rest in peace… and may we continue to learn from him and his successors.


timthumbLast week I heard a sermon from the Rev. Martin Brokenleg, a Lakota elder and honourary Nisga’a, in which he described the challenge facing Canada in its efforts to be reconciled with the First Nations people.

Brokenleg started by telling us about a recent conversation. He had been asked about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He told the person, “Aboriginal people used to be called “Indians,” and the Indian Act of 1876 said all Aboriginal children were to be removed from their families, languages, spiritual ways, and cultures and sent to residential schools for 12 years so they could be turned into Canadians.” Brokenleg said there was a long silence. Then the man replied, ‘I have never heard about this.’”

The rest of Brokenleg’s sermon was about the hard work that must be done when relationships are damaged so severely. (You can read it or listen to it here.)

What is the implication of this for people who are supervising others? I see two big issues that show up consistently.

First, we should not underestimate the lasting damage that comes from the bad actions of the people before us. Most of us have had the experience of having a bad boss. I have spoken to many people who tell me they have left employment because of the bad boss. But many also stay put (for a host of reasons). They no longer trust management. It isn’t enough to say, “Sorry, we didn’t mean it.”

It means that when you start supervising people whose previous boss was bad, you will need to prove two things. First, you need to prove that you are different. Second, you need to prove that you are not the exception. Both can be very difficult. The first one you can address by consistently being yourself over time, using your skills of being a great supervisor, and dedicating yourself to become even better. The second is harder; the best I ever figured out was to acknowledge that all I can promise is what will happen on my watch.

Second, bad bosses tend to strip an organization of skills. The people with great skills will leave, and that means that the people who remain don’t have strong skills. For Canada’s first nations, the removal of children from their families (over 150,000 in the course of the residential schools strategy) resulted in a whole generation that had parenting skills stripped out.

For companies who have had a bad boss, the people who remain will need a lot of development to make the contribution you look for. So rebuilding – whether a company that has had a bad boss – or a nation that has had its parenting skills so battered – takes time. With good training, it can happen faster, but from my experience, it is the confidence that takes longer to come back. That said, I have seen organizations blossom when one bad boss is removed, when the people trust in the rest of the organization.

If this is your situation, that you are a leader following a bad boss, you will need to be good, be consistent and be patient. Trust can be rebuilt. Skills can be restored. The organization can be restored. As a manager or supervisor, your role in that is central.

Go for it.


1_printOne of the books I read this summer was Tim Harford’s “Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure.” Harford explores what contributes to the success of any system (such as a business) and comes up with three key requirements:

1) Variation: the organization needs to try new things often, both small tries and the occasional speculative big try;
2) Survivability: you need to design the organization so it can survive the inevitable failures, even from the large speculative tries; and
3) Selection: you need to get feedback about the tries you make and learn from the mistakes as you go.

Each of these is interesting in its own right. I notice that there is an interesting parallel here to the classic P-D-C-A cycle (plan – do – check – act). In particular, you will notice that the third requirement Harford cites is selection: getting feedback and learning. That is the check-act portion of the cycle.

As he discussed the learning process, he made an interesting observation about investment in new equipment. Here is Harford:

“Typically, new equipment (anything from software to a large machine tool) is superior not because it does the same things faster, but because it is more flexible. To get the most out of that flexibility requires well-trained, adaptable workers with authority to make their own decisions, which is precisely the kind of workforce successful firms seek out when they upgrade their machinery or software. In the organization of the future, the decisions that matter won’t be taken in some high-tech war room, but on the front line.”

In other words, we need better-trained people who are able to make thoughtful decisions as they use more advanced, more flexible tools. We don’t want someone using a $500,000 machine as a simple table router. And before you dismiss that as silly, I’ve seen it.

For supervisors and managers, this means that you have to think about how you will train your people whenever you add new capabilities. For people responsible for investments in technology, it means you must not short-change the training effort.

Taken together it means that when you’re involved in investment decisions, think through what training is needed: who, what, and when. From my perspective, the best tools you can use are those from Training Within Industry. If you need some direction or ideas about how to apply that in your world, get in touch with me at halley@firstlinetraining.ca.


rbrs_0018There are days when it’s hard to get excited about what you’re doing. For whatever reason, the enthusiasm just isn’t there. It might be a bad night’s sleep, or a challenge in an important personal relationship or some kind of nagging health issue.

But when you go in to work, your team needs you to show leadership. An important part of that leadership means sharing with them how their work matters, how it makes enough of a difference in someone else’s life that they need to stay focused themselves.

Think for a moment about any sports team or a serious athlete. If their coach came in on the day of competition complaining about the traffic or the condition of the facilities or showing in any way that she didn’t have confidence in the situation, it would seriously affect the athlete’s performance.

For you as someone with supervisory responsibility, you are that coach. Your team will take its cue from you.

In some ways, your job is harder, because every day is competition day. Every day your team needs to do things that make customers want to come back.

So how can you get yourself “up”, even on those days when you don’t feel at your best.

Here are three tips. They’re not easy, but they work.

1) Smile. The physical act of smiling changes your body chemistry. When you physically smile, you feel more positive. You’ll share that vibe with your team.

2) Remember who you are doing the work for. The person I think about is a particular supervisor whose work life was changed by what he learned in one of our programs. That motivates me. When I ran a plant that made railings, I encouraged people to think about a young niece or nephew who would be protected when the railing was secure. Thinking about a specific customer gives the work more meaning than when it is just another task.

3) Act “as if.” If a supplier is late, you can tell a story about someone who doesn’t care, or a story about a random event. You will feel differently, depending on the story you tell. What’s great is that you can choose which one you tell. The story you tell about events will change how you feel about the world. Choose a story that supports your team. When running a plant, often my big contribution in the day was to provide another way to explain the events that were affecting us, that got the team ready to go find a solution.

When you, the coach for your team, come in excited about the work and rarin’ to go, it is infectious. When you come in downtrodden, that’s infectious, too. You need to choose what you’ll infect your team with. Choose wisely.


dollarA while ago I was in the hospital for a couple of weeks. I saw many examples of how the absence of standard work affected efficiency and patient safety. If I had any questions about the value of standard work before, they disappeared in the course of my visit.

Here are a few examples:
• Every nurse who changed the IV connection used a different set of supplies and had a different protocol (i.e. did it differently). They were aware that they all did it differently and when I asked, all they had were opinions about which was faster, easier or safer. None of them considered expense. For something that was so clearly a matter of opinion (or how they got trained), many were surprisingly disparaging of the other methods.
• Each doctor read through the chart differently, and looked for different information. Some of that was related to their different specialties, but some of it was simply because they went at it differently, and some of it was a response to the fact that charting (how information got recorded by the nurses) varied from nurse to nurse and from shift to shift, so they couldn’t rely on a standard presentation of the data.
• Every housekeeper went at the task of changing a bed between patients differently. Some were very quick; some much slower. I wouldn’t count on the levels of cleanliness being the same from one to the next.

Most of the time, having all these variations didn’t make any difference. But I experienced the impact directly when I got an infection at the site of my IV needle. Fortunately there was no long-term impact, but the short term result was that I was in the hospital for five extra days (probable cost to the system about $10,000) and I lost income for a week.

For most companies the impact of variation is not life and death, but in many cases the variation creates huge extra costs for your customers. For example, when I was running a manufacturing plant, if we were late with a shipment of a custom fitting, it meant that someone was without work for a day, and was often associated with extra costs.

For supervisors, you may want to ask where variation in how your people do things is happening, and what is the impact on:
1) Late deliveries?
2) Higher risks for accidents?
3) Higher costs because of a need to redo certain tasks?
4) Inconsistent quality as experienced by your customer?
5) Extra costs for your customer to use your product or service?

You’re likely to discover that inconsistent practices are costing you, and your customer, a lot more than you think. That should be enough incentive to start looking at how you implement standard work.

If you would like some more ideas about how you can improve your communication skills, click here to register. If you’re already registered, an email has been sent to provide you with the link for access to full article content.


strikeAs a young graduate I had the opportunity to interview the VP Operations of a large mining company. It had half a dozen mines, but only 19 people in its head office. They gave a huge amount of authority to the mine managers. Each year they would discuss the operating goals for the year, the capital the mine needed, and the broad operating strategy for the mine.

Once they agreed, the senior management said something like, “Great. Do whatever you need to in order to reach those goals. You have authority to do anything you need. And if there is a strike, you’re fired.”

Senior management believed that management got the union they deserved, and they thought that if management’s communication with the workforce and the union was so bad that they couldn’t reach an agreement without a strike, then it was the mine manager’s fault.

This perspective has stayed with me ever since.

If you are that mine manager, that statement, “If there is a strike, you’re fired,” pushes you to communicate better. It pushes you to listen more, to observe more, to probe for clarification, to seek a wide range of information when addressing a situation, and to be fair. These are all good things.

For supervisors, you many not have such a harsh consequence facing you, but it is worth challenging yourself:
• Are you listening enough?
• Are you going to a lot of sources for your information about the situations that arise?
• Are you probing for clarification?
• Are you going to the workplace to make your own observations?

If not, you might consider some or all of these strategies.

If you would like some more ideas about how you can improve your communication skills, click here to register. If you’re already registered, an email has been sent to provide you with the link for access to full article content.