Posted by: Knightbird | August 3, 2010

Be the Ladder, Not the Crab

One of the burdens of leadership is unwarranted criticism. I am writing this because I have just been blasted with criticism mostly based on name calling. After 30 years of leadership in the Native community, you mostly let it slide off your back. If constructive, criticism is a wonderful tool of lean management, especially if it is fact based and non-judgmental. The best leaders encourage debate and discussion, and generally center it around processes. When we do this, we take a giant leap towards having a workplace based on respect and trust. We eliminate the name calling, and begin encouraging, training and delegating.

But as Dr. Deming informs us, not all defects in a workplace are process based. There are a small number of defects that are people based (I heard the figure set at 6%). Some are training deficits. Others are moral or ethical deficits. And some are insubordination or resistance. When we work with people, their goals and aspirations, and differing levels of experience, we have to take these types of behaviors into account and be prepared to deal with them. Chugachmiut is attempting to use the principles of Job Relations (JR) in helping us relate to individuals. We rely on our Lean teachings in order to help us relate to our employees.

One of our Lean principles is, of course, “Respect for People.” The other is “Continuous Improvement.” They have been referred to as the Twin Pillars of the Toyota Production system. If we respect our people, we will help them continuously improve. If their behaviors are not appropriate for the work place, we must find a way to help them grow out of those behaviors. This is where JR helps.

JR uses a 4 step method to encourage good relationships with employees. The first step is to “Get the Facts.” As stated in the TWI JR Manual, “Complete facts must be known or obtained. Opinions and feelings must be found out and considered along with facts. It is necessary to look at an individual because people are not alike.” If we do not get the facts and consider the opinions and feelings of our employees, we run huge risks for creating a dysfunctional workplace.

The second step is to “Weigh and Decide.” According to the manual, “Decisions are made on the basis of facts properly evaluated and related.”

Steps three and four require a supervisor to “Take Action” and Check Results.” Clear communication of an action plan and follow-up are necessary. This shows that we are truly interested in helping the employee succeed in the workplace.

So why did I title this blog the way I did? I think this short story, as told by Janie Leask, President of the First Alaskans Institute, resonates with most Alaska Native leaders.

“The whole ‘bucket of crabs’ theory can be used as an example with any group. It’s where you have people who are trying to make it out of the bucket, to become something and go somewhere. When a crab gets almost to the top, almost out of the bucket, and the rest of the crabs pull him back.”

As a Native leader, I have had my share of criticism, and I try to look for lessons in the criticism. I try to be kind to the one doing the criticizing. I have no idea in many cases why they are so bitter, or what they hope to achieve by their criticism. Of course, if the criticism is just name calling, there is no lesson to learn. If the criticism is not based on facts, and doesn’t consider my opinions and feelings, then I have to take the criticism with the proverbial grain of salt. However, if the criticism is offered in a positive way to help me grow, improve and succeed, then I would be a fool not to accept the help.

At Chugachmiut, we want to be a ladder for our employees. We want to help them out of their bucket. We don’t want to pull them down.


  1. With all due respect, Dr. Ofelt, I think you may have some misperceptions about the lean philosophy, where it comes from, and its intent.

    It isn’t east coast or west coast thinking. It actually has roots going way back to Henry Ford. Some say even as far back as Eli Whitney’s interchangeable parts, or even Italian ship building back to the Renaissance era. Toyota built upon it and it has only within the last 20 years or so begun in America.

    I was born and raised in Iowa, although I lived in other states for about 10 years. Much of my learning is eclectic, as is lean. I practice lean in a rural hospital. Our true intent is simple. We want to develop our people to deliver value to our patients – the best safety, quality, and least costly way. That is all lean tries to do. That is all I am trying to do for the people in my community. I believe that is what Chugachmiut’s lean initiative is trying to do.

    From time to time I encounter staff in our hospital who are outwardly hostile toward our effort. It is clear to me they do not understand its intent. I am not trying to tell them what to do. I try to coach them in understanding new ways of thinking that can help them deliver the best patient care possible. Unfortunately, some minds are closed and refuse to listen. Instead, they spew anger. It is sad that they are so wrapped up in their own agendas that they are missing out on a good opportunity to improve patient care. Ultimately, they are telling me they care more about their own agendas than improving patient care. Very sad.

    Peace to you.

  2. With all due respect, the association of the principles lean with Ford and Whitney is mostly mythology. While they applied some of the same tools, the principles (TWI programs) used by Taiichi Ohno to build TPS are different…and Job Relations was one of the programs he used.
    Too many people confuse the tools applied in lean with the principles. Almost all of the tools used in lean have been documented as successful applications long before Ohno developed TPS. (The only exception is Shingo’s attribution of ‘inside/outside’ to processes targeted for setup reduction.)
    Instead of relying on popular books claiming to know something about TPS or lean or TWI, I went to the source…the National Archives (of several countries) and the Library of Congress (rare books) and looked at the original materials…what you find in the original materials is far different from the accepted mythology of lean.

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