I heard a story years ago about a strange partnership struck between Toyota and GM. In 1984 they came together to create a factory called NUMMI. This factory ran under the Toyota Production System, whose principles by now are world-famous as Lean Six Sigma. (Emphasis here that I’m suspicious about any system that strives for efficiency at the cost of its workers. But that’s another essay!). The NUMMI factory didn’t appear different from others like it: workers built cars as they traveled along a production line. In a typical GM factory, the line never stopped. If a worker installed a part wrong, they wouldn’t have time to fix it before the car moved on. It would get fixed later, even if that meant having to take apart the entire car again to do so.
At the NUMMI factory, long nylon ropes (known as andon cords) hung throughout the factory floor. If anyone on the line had a problem with their part of the car, they pulled the andon cord. The line stopped, and a team leader would rush to the person and help them solve their problem. Once they fixed the problem, they pulled the cord again to resume production. Nobody passed judgment on the people who had to pull the cord. The factory’s success was dependent on the success of everybody inside. These production lines built cars with almost no mistakes.
There are many times in my life when I could’ve used an andon cord. Handling an tricky situation at work. Taking an exam that I thought was happening the following week. Having an awkward conversation with a person I ran into in the lobby of our apartment building. These examples all happened in, like, the last six months. I could’ve pulled the andon cord and stopped the line like time itself. The pause would help defuse workplace tension, studied what I needed to learn, or allowed me to take the back stairs instead.
In a factory, it makes sense why we would need to stop the line sometimes. It’s often easiest to solve a problem when it happens, rather than much later. Filling a parking lot with broken cars might have kept up our productivity numbers, but at too high of a cost.
So why is it that for many organizations, our work always feels unstoppable? Say we’re creating a new after-school program for kids. Nobody on the project team is a kid. But we didn’t have time to consult kids about our program. The grant report is due soon. We wanted to convene a group of their parents, but the dates didn’t line up for a focus group. The start of the school year is now fast approaching, and we say “there’s no time.” We rush the program out, risking failure or even harm to the kids we wanted to help.
Our same workplaces evolved over 400 years steeped in a culture of white supremacy. Educated people at the helm of these organizations are starting to realize what they’ve really inherited. They may understand that things have to change at their organization. They may have an urge, especially if feeling guilt, shame, or discomfort, to try to stop feeling that way. Like the food jumping out of the frying pan, we have to be careful about where we are going to land.
pulling the cord
As our organizations change, so too will our institutional understanding of equity. How do we prepare ourselves for that?
We may think we have the answers for how to be more antiracist. What if we’re wrong about how to solve the problem? How long will it take us to realize it? How long will it take our organization to change course a second or third time?
We begin to include in our decision-making process more racially-diverse people with their own opinions. What if our new colleagues disagree with our plans? What if they have entirely new-to-us ideas? Will we hear them?
The jobs with the highest turnover are often found at the bottom of a hierarchy. When a company focuses on hiring a diverse workforce, this is often where BIPOC staff start their careers. Some of those new staff may feel pressure not to challenge the ideas of their boss’ boss’ boss. How can leaders prove to them we will hear their concerns and act on them?
I know the urge of wanting to get started. I find myself very impatient when looking for ways to remedy racial inequality. I move slowly because I carry with me the biases and instincts of white supremacy that are stuck to me like barbs. I need to be careful not to perpetuate old ideas disguised under new terms.
Workers at the NUMMI factory pulled the cord if even a single bolt was out of place. How will we know when we’ve seen all the bolts that hold our society together? How do you use your implicit bias for or against people you work with? How do you use it when you have power over someone else?
When we realize that our best intentions still cause harm, will we be self-aware enough to pull the cord?