There is a little article in an obscure publication – Food manufacture – from the UK that nails a critical problem right on the head. Nestle chairman and CEO in the UK and Ireland Fiona Kendrick says, “Few would be engineers are ‘willing to really roll up their sleeves and get really involved, particularly when working with unskilled and semi-skilled operators.” The article, titled Graduates lack personal skills and business acumen – Nestlé boss, points to the problems that one dimensional people cause in trying to create an effective business culture.
A few years ago at a Lean Accounting Summit I heard a line from a Parker Hannifin division controller that I have shamelessly plagiarized countless times since. He described and engineer as someone who is good at math, but lacks the personality and social skills to be an accountant. It got a big laugh in no small part because he said it in a room full of accountants. I have flipped it when speaking to engineering groups, describing accountants as folks good at math, but lacking the social skills to be engineers.
Both groups – and lets throw IT into the mix, as well – have reputations for wanting to be left alone, content to spend their days with their noses in front of computer screens, or the output from those computers. They often talk only to people within their own functional circle who share their knowledge of, interest in, and passion for numbers; avoiding interaction with people who are not similarly, numerically inclined.
Of course the flip side – the guy or girl who casually says, ‘I’m a people person not a math person’ – as thought math skills are somehow embedded (or not) in one’s DNA – is equally problematic. The problems innumerate people create are well known and loudly decried, however. We read often that the math skills of American workers are not up to par. It is about time someone like Ms. Kendrick pointed out the flip side.
The problem is that math is not real – it is nothing more than a tool engineers and accountants use to try to create a model of reality. Sometimes the real world can be described in discrete, mathematical terms, but more often it can’t. The math might come close, or it might be a good representation of the average, but it most often fails to define a specific reality.
There is a gray space between mathematical theory and reality. While there is certainly a sound basis for urging shop floor folks to improve their math skills so they can work to bridge that gap, Ms. Kendrick is dead on when she points out the engineers (and accountants) have to move into that gray space as well so they can meet up with production folks and make good decisions. To the extent that management only views the gap from one side – ‘the problem is entirely on production folks aren’t good with numbers’ – they are essentially saying that the theoretical view of the world is the real world. They are dead wrong.
Success requires production folks who understand the math and technical folks who accept the limitations of the math; and constant, open, respectful interaction between both out in that gray area.