I believe that one of the most tragic results of the modern workplace is the dehumanization of work. This is a concept I even considered as a kid, imagining all factory workers being replaced by robots and wondering if we’d ever get to the point of George Jetson making it all happen at the touch of a button. At the time, George’s button-pressing replaced whole teams of production workers and we really aren’t far off today.

The evolutions in agriculture were also of interest.  I grew up on Canada’s prairies and I’d pass the time driving through that exciting, flat space by comparing the farming implements and instruments of the day to what I’d read about in Little House on the Prairie books.  The industrial revolution at work – machines replacing humans.

As I got older, though, I realized that the dehumanization of work didn’t always take the form of mechanization of tasks.  In fact, I now believe this has the least to do with the dehumanization of work.  I believe that the dehumanization of work today originates with an oft-misguided attempt to make all work into procedures that embody uniformity, repeatability and efficiency.  These procedures are also often accompanied by the notion that by refining these procedures and pursuing minimalistic & incremental improvements  we can foster the innovation that will lead to more efficiency, more adaptability and easier repeatability.

Processes are important.  Organizations need to be able to stand by their brand promises and customers need to receive consistent value.  They’re also important components in instructing employees what it is they do at a company.  The answer to “What would you say you do here?” is often provided the best context by the processes one follows every day.

Processes aren’t just what is written in the manual; they eventually become the culture and will affect the way employees execute every activity.  And you’d want this to happen – it increases overall effectiveness.  But processes always ripple beyond their intended scopes to become what Gordon MacKenzie calls “The Giant Hairball.”  The Giant Hairball is something that stifles innovation and prevents the most talented people from being effective, but it is core to every organization in many ways.

Now, processes are implemented to fundamentally reduce variation in customer experience.  Unfortunately, “reducing variation” often means constraining the employees so much that their jobs become mechanized.  How mechanical can they get?

Outside of Dilbert, I don’t think people intend to turn their workspace into a McDonald’s franchise, but without understanding of the tacit implications of processes, it’ll happen.

What I think is really suffocating about processes (combined with marginally effective compensation plans) is that employees may eventually forget that, whatever business they are in, they are in a people business.  “Reducing variation” can often mean constraining employees so much that their entire job becomes mechanized.  Roy Osing, an executive in the Canadian telecom industry, calls these “Dumb Rules.”

At last week’s Transform Conference at Roshester Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic, Patricia Moore, an internationally renowned gerontologist and designer spoke about how people are treated in the healthcare system.  In particular, she looks at how elders are treated.  Her overall message was that older people are people, not an obstacle that designers need to work around as they construct new products or gadgets.  At the end of her talk, she read a letter written by a woman in a care home that she placed so it would be found by her caregivers after she died.

The woman, very poetically, recounted how her nurses never saw her as a person – not as the young girl she once was, the wife she became, the parent of children then grandchildren and eventually a widow with love lost.  She wrote about how her mere existence was an apparent burden on those who were paid to take care of her because she was a function of their procedures, not a human in the twilight of life.

For myself, I come from the recruitment industry and have seen the challenge of trying to strike the balance between process and people first hand.  A recruitment firm wants a consistent brand and customer experience, but it’s an industry that relies on one-on-one relationships.  Over-complicating the process of managing those one-on-one relationships means standardizing the customer experience and limiting the creativity of the employee.  Citing Roy Osing again, “The average customer simply doesn’t exist.”

Disconnects ensue when process dominates relationships.  Candidates for jobs are often hired because they’re engaging and able to work with people.  That’s a great idea, but if you constrain them processes to manage relationships rather than trust their freedom to express their ability to work with people, they will eventually become despondent and less engaged, not unlike the nurses called out in the lady’s final letter.  These people begin working against their nature.

If people stay employed at such organizations, their lack of allowed creativity may end up reducing effectiveness as they feel disempowered.  I went to a Panera Bread in Tampa, FL recently and was told that even though they had hot water, 16oz cups and espresso, they could not make an Americano.  For those who aren’t up on their special coffee drinks, an Americano is, in its most basic form, espresso and hot water.  They wouldn’t even try it out after I explained how to make one because it wasn’t in the rule book.

In summary, processes are important.  They standard the customer experience and ensure a company’s promise is consistently delivered. They provide managers with the faith in their employees’ ability to execute and makes them accountable, regardless of how well-trained they happen to be.

On the downside, overdoing process can create a disconnect between employees and the overall vision of an organization.  By focusing solely on mindlessly executing the day-to-day, the human element and company’s raison d’être gets reduced.  Employees that aren’t empowered or engaged are not going to deliver the brand promise effectively – they’ll be following the process to the lowest level that won’t get them disciplined.

I’m not sure that industry will stand for continued dehumanization of work – it’s not good for employees nor most customers in people-oriented businesses.  What I learned at Transform is that healthcare is one place this simply can’t continue and I’m hopeful that customers, and employees, will once again retain the status of ‘people’ in most organizations.