A chief executive officer (CEO) of a large corporation was touring a manufacturing facility. As with all CEO’s touring a factory, he had an entourage of executives accompanying him as he walked and shook hands with workers on the production line.
As he strolled through the facility’s main line where the most important manufacturing processes took place, he noticed a uniformed operator sitting idly on a chair with his hardhat over his eyes.
The CEO asked the plant manager accompanying him what the operator’s job was.
The plant manager answered: “That man, sir, is our annealing oven operator. He watches the oven’s gauges and adjusts the temperatures when needed.”
“I’m sorry for you having to see this man just sitting there doing nothing,” the plant manager said apologetically. “I’ll go tell him that he should be working.”
“No, you don’t need to do that,” the CEO replied. “The operator is doing precisely what we want him to do. Just by the fact that man is sitting there doing nothing, it means that the annealing line is operating smoothly.”
The CEO then approached the operator who quickly got up when he saw him coming. The CEO shook the worker’s hand and said, “You’re doing a good job, keep up the good work.”
What do we do when we see a subordinate worker doing nothing at his work-station or desk?
Some bosses scold their employees for just sitting around. Some bosses would chide supervisors for not assigning more tasks to employees. A worker who’s not working is not productive, a boss may say.
On one hand that may be true especially if the idle worker in question had deadlines to meet. But in most of my experiences, it would be the opposite. The idle worker would actually be the most productive.
Like the operator the CEO noticed, idle workers may have no problems to fix. The operator had already set his equipment and did all the adjustments needed. He had done his job making sure the annealing line wouldn’t fail and there would be no issues in the quality of items being processed. He would of course check the gauges now and then to make sure everything is all right.
We sometimes think that idle workers should be doing something more. If we see an office worker taking longer coffee breaks than usual, we’d somehow try to think of giving more work to that person to make him more productive. If we see other workers sweating away while another is just sitting around, we sometimes get the first impression that the idle worker doesn’t have enough work.
Some bosses believe workers are just too lazy to find other better things to do or problems to solve. We sometimes conclude that workers in general lack initiative or a sense of ownership.
So, we try to push workers to be creative problem-solvers. We command them or offer them incentives to take the initiative to find improvements for the workplace. Creative ideas are starting points for higher productivity, after all.
But we have to beware that there are pitfalls to forcing workers to find and solve problems. Workers might end up finding and solving problems for the sake of it; they’d just identify stuff that seem like problems but aren’t. Trivial issues that don’t offer any benefits would just be reported. We would end up back to square one: just finding work so an idle worker won’t be idle.
In my experience, many idle workers are veteran workers who have by experience learned how to do their jobs so well they end up with extra time on their hands. Because these veteran workers have accumulated much wisdom about their jobs, it has often become a good idea to assign them as mentors to younger, less experienced workers. Veteran workers can be the best mentors.
And more often than not, we don’t have to ask. Veteran workers who have stayed long at their jobs usually volunteer to train their peers. We managers just have to reinforce this by recognition and praise, by showing genuine appreciation.
Veteran workers also have many ideas for improvement. Rather than forcing upon them assignments to find and solve problems, it usually is a good idea to just ask them first, informally. Questions like, “what do you think this factory needs to get better?” or “what’s your opinion about laying out the office differently?” usually generate some interesting eye-opener responses from veteran workers.
True, some veteran workers wouldn’t offer much at the start. And most of the time, that’s because there was some bad history involved. A manager before you didn’t appreciate the veteran worker for a previous suggestion or a manager simply ignored an idea a veteran worker offered.
This is where investing in listening comes in. When one can make a veteran worker open up, one may be pleasantly surprised by the treasure trove of ideas and knowledge that come out.
At that point, the veteran worker is no longer idle.