While doing some follow up at a manufacturing plant in North Carolina, I heard this strange phrase from a number of supervisors talking to each other about problems on the floor. One described a problem he asked his people to tackle but were having trouble with. The two supervisors invariably started brainstorming solutions to the problem. The other supervisor stopped himself abruptly and said, "wait, wait, wait...let's not steal their monkey." I asked what this meant and the explanation makes perfect sense:
When somebody has a problem, they have a monkey on their back. We all have problems we must face. If I solve the problem for them, then I have stolen their monkey. What a great way to think about empowerment! And what an easy reminder for you to stop yourself before you solve a person's problem that they could solve on their own.
I heard other people saying, "don't take their monkey" but I like the effect "stealing" has on the concept of being a genba leader. When we steal their monkey, we are basically telling people not to think, not to worry, not to solve their own problems within their control. Why do I say this? When we "take" something from somebody as a genba leader, we do it in the context of helping them. But have we... really? Have we really helped them, or hurt them? Put another way, when we steal a monkey, we are stifling responsibility, creativity, morale, and thinking in the workplace, precisely the opposite of what we want in a lean culture. We wonder why people do not take action, or offer ideas - because we "take their monkeys" for them! We decide to do the heavy lifting for them.
Stealing is wrong. And stealing somebody's monkey is just as wrong as stealing their wallet, we are stealing their ideas, their pride and their creativity before they even have a chance to know it is gone. Don't steal their monkeys!