Is Your Leadership Making People Lazy?

It’s not them, it’s you.

As a leader, have you ever felt like some of your workers were “lazy”?

Imagine walking out into your plant, and seeing a guy leaning on his machine for hours every day.  He must be lazy, right?

That was what you might have seen on any given day at Barry-Wehmiller’s MarquipWardUnited (Now BW Papersystems) operations in Baltimore.

Veteran machinist Jimmy stood by his machine through multiple supervisors who all offered the same mantra: “Do what I tell you today.”  Often, this meant Jimmy would spend the day leaning lazily against the machine simply watching it run. Jimmy had long ago given up offering suggestions as to how he could better use his time.  Instead, he did as instructed by a supervisor years ago, standing within ten feet of his machine while it turned out parts all day long. Boring work, never ending days.

“All I do is stare at the machine and watch it run,” Jimmy shared. “It’s like watching the laundry machine. It keeps spinning and spinning, but there isn’t anything exciting going on.”

When leaders heard comments like that from Jimmy, they had the misguided impression that he didn’t want to be a part of making improvements.

Then, finally, something changed.

Like most American manufacturing businesses, the business began struggling against foreign competition and pricing pressure; the future looked challenging. We needed to create a better future for the organization, and we asked team members like Jimmy to be part of doing just that.

Understandably, Jimmy was skeptical when we asked him to be part of improving the way we do things. For more than twenty years, Jimmy’s supervisors let him know that they only valued his hands, not his head or his heart.  Then we came along and invited him to take Responsible Freedom. [Is Your Leadership Due for a Checkup?, July 10, 2013]

True leaders create space Click To TweetThrough responsible freedom, team members are asked to contribute their gifts and talents, have a bias for action and take accountability for the outcome. This kind of environment relies on a partnership of trust. Leaders trust team members to act responsibly, with consideration for how their actions will affect others around them as well as their own work. Team members trust leaders will allow them the freedom to try things and make mistakes.

Ultimately, responsible freedom allows people like Jimmy to feel better about their work. But it goes beyond that.

If American manufacturing companies like MWU are going to not just survive, but thrive, then team members need to be engaged in making the business better. They need to have a bias for action, to feel ownership for continuously improving things every day. They need to play an active part in creating their own future.

Once we began continuous improvement events in Jimmy’s area, the entire project team realized that the system had been the problem, not Jimmy. “All of Jimmy’s materials, finished inventory, and related machines were located on the other side of the factory. Jimmy wanted to do more but we weren’t letting him. So we gave him the responsible freedom to make changes,” shared one of the project leaders.

At Jimmy’s request, the materials, inventory storage, and related machines were all moved into his workspace. Jimmy was asked simply to make it work.

“Now I am the leader of the entire shafts and cylinder area, and we pride ourselves on making things better every day. It is so much more fulfilling to make changes and see the results,” Jimmy said.

So you see, Jimmy was just fine; it was our “management” of Jimmy that was the problem. He had gifts and talents, thoughts and ideas just waiting to be shared.

True leaders create space for individuals to be passionate about their work and feel a sense of ownership.  Nobody wants to be managed, bossed or supervised. Your people are ready for great leadership. Are you ready to offer them responsible freedom?

Truly Human Leadership is found throughout Barry-Wehmiller Companies, where Bob Chapman is Chairman and CEO. A $3+ billion global capital equipment and engineering consulting firm, Barry-Wehmiller’s 12,000 team members are united around a common belief: we can use the power of business to build a better world. Chapman explores that idea in his Wall Street Journal best-selling book, Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring For Your People Like Family, available from Penguin Random House.


  • Beth Bohns says:

    A long time for you to hang in there. Glad you did! Thank you for opting to use your responsible freedom to demonstrate your leadership and share your many years of learning.

  • Dale Barnes says:

    I’m glad to see Jimmy finally had an opportunity to create the path to his own destiny. I felt the same way for 37 years as a service tech. Fix a problem in the field and return to Assembly. We often referred to it as going from Hero to Zero !

  • Scott Powell says:

    Brilliant and heartwarming!


    • Brian says:

      Hello I agree…sometimes we feel we can do more but are limited on what we can do or don’t have the resource ( time ) to allow people to be fulfilled.
      Sometimes it feels like some get “special treatment” while others struggle to be able to show their talent and make a difference.
      Great article!

  • Lee Wenzel says:

    ya ho Jerry
    The American work force has a huge amount of tallent many times untapped. Many of us are just waiting or already have jumped in to make difference. Thanks to Bob Chapman.

  • Andrew Barlow says:


    Ever since B-W took on another company in Waterloo, I’ve been following your stories and the leadership methodology. Sounds great, and I know it’s congruent with the way I’ve always thought about these things. This one spoke to me particularly as I’ve always felt that “we’re in charge”, so it is ultimately management that makes things work through “all” the people.

    Take care,


    • Bob Chapman says:

      Andrew . good to hear from you .. it has been years .. give me your e-mail address and I will give you an update. You were such a gentleman to work with. Bob

  • joe says:

    excellent who better to set up a work area then the one working in it. awesome job guys congrats to all.

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