The saddest words are these: “no one listened to me.”

No, this is not the title of a country song. These are the words of a front-line worker at a company I visited recently: “I’ve been complaining about this to the plant managers for two years, but no one listened to me.

Recently, I was helping a client launch 5S in one of their production cells. At the pack station, I noticed that the worker had to bend over double to reach the Styrofoam packing blocks in a large cardboard box. She explained that she wasn’t allowed to cut the box down as they used up the material. Apparently, the company returned the empty boxes to the supplier, which were then reused for the next shipment back to the company.

She didn’t know anything about the arrangement—who decided it, how much money it saved, what the options were—all she knew was that getting packing material out of the boxes was hard work. When she told her supervisors and managers that the box recycling policy made her job harder, they didn’t do anything about it either—nor did they explain why the policy was important. From her perspective, no one listened—which is a stunning display of disrespect for people. (Actually, that’s not quite true. The old policy forbade her from even breaking the boxes down, so her work area was littered with empty boxes that she had to walk around. Finally, someone allowed her to at least break down the boxes so they didn’t take up as much space.) 

The good news is that the plant manager and the new VP of Operations participated in the 5S, and when they saw the box issue, they immediately went to purchasing to understand the whole story. Within three hours, the policy was changed, the operator was allowed to cut down the boxes, and we set up a gravity feed system for the Styrofoam packing blocks. The story had a happy ending.

But the company was lucky. This operator hadn’t given up yet. She still had the desire to make her own work, and the overall operation of her cell, better. You can imagine, though, that for every person like her, there’s at least one other who has learned from experience that the company doesn’t value his opinions. Those people have given up—they disengage from their work, punch their time clocks, and don’t try to make things better. Why bother? They know that no one will listen to them.

There are only so many times that a worker can be ignored until they finally stop trying. Then you’re left with a bunch of hands and no brains in the company, and wondering why the market is ignoring you.