If you’re doing something stupid… stop

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The Andon cord is a thick weave of synthetic highlighter-alarm-yellow that used to run the length of every assembly line of every Toyota plant. Along with the hundreds of metric tons of door assemblies and engine parts and radio knobs that snaked their way through these assembly lines, so did the cord. Gently swaying to the humming rhythm of heavy machinery and man working in concert, it was there, a safety measure, and a key to continuous improvement.

An employee could, with a simple tug of the cord, bring the entire assembly line to a standstill. Any employee. Non-manager, non-supervisor assembly-line nobody could, with a simple pull, stop the whole damn thing. The cost of such a stop could be something like $15,000 per minute, and yet, it was worth it. It IS worth it for manufacturers around the world. The impact of stopping yourself when you’re making a mistake is huge. Taking the time to notice mistakes, stop, and figure out the problem helps root out problems.  

The Toyota way

Russian stock photos are wild.
Image by Luidmila Kot from Pixabay

Along with stopping the assembly line, a pull on the cord would also sound alarms. It still does for many other auto manufacturers, and probably spoon factories, cell phone assembly plants, and high-quality manufacturing environments the world over. Pulling the cord stops production and Toyota has apparently switched to a button format now, to avoid clutter. As much as the switch likely brings joy to the Marie Kondo within all of us, the cord has become a symbol of Kaizen. Whether a cord, a button, or a simple decision to stop, the function and intent of the Andon remains. If you see something go wrong, stop the machine. 

While the Andon cord is a key pillar in the Toyota Production System (TPS), it’s known well outside of the world of automotive manufacturing. Digital and service-oriented businesses have taken inspiration from automotive manufacturing world, with Jeff Bezos being a particularly convincing example. Empowering individual front-line workers to speak up when the machine goes off the rails is a key component of high-performing businesses.

What happens without an Andon cord

In my time as a freelancer, I have observed just how important the ability to raise problems can be. A content-based project took on new, inexperienced writers. The writers were provided with minimal training. Without much guidance on the content (or qualitative statements about what constitutes good content in the first place) the writers were asked to produce at volume. This was going to be an important reference resource in a lucrative online gaming niche.

A thin layer of management separated the boss and the inexperienced writers. The management layer perceived their performance to be graded primarily on word count outputs. They saw their role as to “crack the whip”, and crack it they did. Reams of content flowed out onto the site. Updates were frequent. Thousand-word articles of content were hastily put together from bits and snippets of press releases, product descriptions, and other resources. Keywords were prominently featured. Backlinks generated.

The thin layer of management was satisfied. “We’re hitting numbers” they thought. The work continued for a month. Then for another. “We’re gonna hit 10,000 articles by the end of next year” the managers gleefully celebrated.

The proverbial whip cracked on, the writers typed away.

Once the boss had time to check in on the details (not just word count output reports made by the managers) he discovered a mess. This redundant copy in repetitive articles that contained keyword-dense, promotional-sounding writing did not seem intended at humans at all, but rather gave the impression of some blackhat SEO content intended to fool web crawlers from 2005. The internal links were broken. Each content piece, though long, was disjointed, as if put together from bits of other articles by writers who had no experience in the subject matter.

The site was live, and a small sales force was working on recruiting affiliates. The affiliate partners were all too happy to sign on and share an affiliate link in this highly competitive niche.

Just as the monetization strategy was expected to kick in, the under-communicated issues of content quality became apparent. Finally.

The managers, in their rush to satisfy the top-level KPI requirement forgot to worry about anything else. The keyword-dense and almost human-unreadable copy failed to attract solid traffic. The robot traffic it did attract, hit a wall of broken links and low content quality. The site got “sandboxed“. All the SEO in the world wouldn’t be able to promote the resource now. Time and money had been wasted, and no one was happy about the outcome.

So, what went wrong and what should be done?

New and inexperienced writers aren’t in and of themselves a danger. Neither are new managers. Even being too eager is a self-correcting trait of new hires. The trouble, ultimately, comes from a lack of feedback. When those doing the task feel unable or incapable of raising concerns, even when what they are doing seems nonsensical, failure is not just likely, it’s likely inevitable.

Another element here was fear – by holding on to the safety of volume-based KPIs the managers felt safe with a terrible product. Checking the outcome occurred only at the level of word-counts, broad content production, not content quality. Cut by the manager’s fear of raising concerns or giving bad news to the boss, the normal feedback chain that would alert “the boss” of a problem was obscured by the bigger cultural problem.

This hesitancy, not wanting to point out that something is going wrong for fear of being blamed – it’s woven deep into our psyche. It would be nice to imagine a world where we didn’t assume that we were at fault when something went wrong. Unfortunately, this is a result of conditioning so ingrained in school systems and societies that this world will firmly remain in the realm of imagination. What’s worse, when something goes wrong, we’re prone to look for someone else to blame, and people in charge of others are often not immune. In many organizations retribution and blame-assignment is the first and last response to fuck-ups.

Pulling the cord, while an active attempt to improve the system for everyone, always gets punished. Even without punishment, we are conditioned to expect punishment. The sudden attention is intimidating. The workers don’t pull the cord, the managers don’t dare raise an issue, and by the time the boss checks in on the progress himself, the whole organization has dug itself into a hole.

Without a culture that actively encourages you to raise concerns, the option of pulling the Andon cord is intimidating, scary. And yet, it’s worth doing. It is certainly uncomfortable, and depending on the organization, might have to be done carefully or indirectly. Ultimately, though, an organization that is incapable of recognizing and reacting appropriately to digging itself into a hole will likely bury itself, and you with it.

If you find yourself doing something that doesn’t make sense, you can start to fix the damage only after you’re done digging the hole deeper.