Achieving excellence means producing units virtually defect free. I was practicing the target-driven manufacturing at a manufacturing company. As usual, the company has opportunities for improvement in different areas. For example, too much verification and inspection, too much variety in sample sizes or measurement frequency, high non-conformance rate, high defect rates, customer returns, excessive cost of customer service and the list goes on. The director of manufacturing operations committed to practice target-driven manufacturing for improving process yields.

My first step in solving their manufacturing problem was to listen to workers. I walked around, looked at the operations, chatted with production people, and asked questions to learn about the manufacturing environment. Then, I went to the lead process person-John-about process problems. It appeared that he was just waiting for someone to ask the question or enlist his help. He was waiting to be heard.

John described all the symptoms, reasons and understanding of the process so well that I felt he already knew how to fix the process in a real sense. He might not be able to analyze the data, but he knew his process. As I concluded my discussion he said, “Praveen, you are the first one who has asked for my input.”

Sometime later, we identified five projects. The lean production person associated with the process-Jack-also was identified. When I tried to communicate with Jack, his responses were very short and rushed; he almost sounded agitated or frustrated, but I knew he was the smartest guy in the area. I decided to work with him, so I told him, “Jack, you have to figure out one day how to work with me.”

About 30 days later we become friends and worked on the project. I have to admit that with insignificant input from me, Jack improved the process by more than 98%. He was happy with the results. As we completed the project, Jack asked, “Was I the toughest guy to work with in your life?” I recognized he was playing the role of a tough guy. Jack concluded, “Management brings a new consultant every year, they do nothing, and they don’t listen to us. I had to act that way.”

I bet we have similar situations prevalent in all American manufacturing facilities, or even in other countries. I am constantly reminded by some published data about differences between Toyota and the U.S. automotive industry, where Toyota makes an extensive effort to listen to people, while U.S. automakers tend to shun people. Of course, the results are obvious.

I do not think our management methods were meant to ignore people. Such behavior must have crept in over time as a result of our success and prosperity. We must appreciate that American industry’s success was a result of hard and good work by production persons.

If we are successful, we must have listened to people because an organization cannot succeed without listening to its people. Conversely, if an organization is struggling, one better believe that it is not listening to its people. We must rush to listen to our employees. This will be the investment of our time with highest return.

Should we encourage management to listen to employees or embolden employees to speak up? We need to be ourselves. Speak up when we should, or shut up and listen when others may be more experienced. Listening to employees does not debase management, rather it strengthens leadership. Actually it is a smart thing to do to benefit from employee mistakes. The organization has already paid for employee mistakes and experience so why not cash in? Listening to employees is a profitable venture-it costs a little and returns a lot.

What can be done to listen to employees? First create a culture of care, trust and respect. Create multiple platforms for gathering employee input. Listen to employees in meetings, gather their feedback, give employees feedback, hold town hall meetings, organize lunch for four or more, create an online community and participate in social networks. Even a formal system of idea management can be implemented.

Listening to employees pays off in great returns.