This job would be great if not for the damned customers

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.

Working Hard and Corporate Culture

Orbiting The Giant Hairball

Orbiting the Giant Hairball

My friend, Amanda, loaned me a book called “Orbiting the Giant Hairball” by Gordon MacKenzie.  I read it today and I have to say that I can identify very closely with MacKenzie’s travels through the policies, processes and bureaucracy that make up corporate culture.  What’s amazing is that your organization need not be a Fortune 500 to become a giant hairball and learning how to manage the intricacies of your role is important no matter where you work. I recommend this book to any employee anywhere.

One piece caught my eye and it’s really the one section that made me think about how corporate culture really needs to be managed, because the default just does not work.  This is the idea that if you work incredibly hard, you get results; you get ahead; you get recognized.  It’s actually a serious detriment to recognize and revere the hard worker for a couple of reasons.

If you have started a company, or even if you haven’t, you can probably think about those early days where the idea for the organization is coming to fruition:  “Let’s build an organization where people work really hard.  Let’s reward people for staying late and putting in those extra hours.”  I hope that doesn’t sound familiar to anyone.  You can’t reward people for working hard or working long hours – it doesn’t make sense.  If you’ve got a really slow employee who takes twice the average time to perform a task, are you planning to reward that?  No.  So it’s important to recognize how an organization will define “hard work.”

So let’s say you’ve defined “hard work” as punching out the most orders with the given company-sanctioned procedures and your company is the type where people “get out of it what they put in” in terms of general performance.  So someone works long hours and performs well.  And there’s a celebration for it.  “Look at Johnson! She worked so hard all year and hit her target.”  What message does that send?  Hard work, and hard work alone, wins the prize.  This does two things in my mind.

The first was mentioned in MacKenzie’s book – that tells everyone that if you’re not working as hard as ‘Johnson,’ then you’re not doing it right.  It tells managers that Johnson has set the standard for how hard people need to work in the company.  And the culture, if it’s results driven, will recognize that as the standard.  It’s a bit of false advertising that will probably lead to burnout, turnover and a general sense of failure or missed potential for people who don’t hit that mark.

My second concern is that it hinders innovation.  If the focus is on “working hard” and not achieving results within certain guidelines, say corporate values or whatever is up on the wall, people are not encouraged to do things differently or explore other options.  The goal will be to work as hard as Johnson to get the same result – some bonus or other recognition.

I’m definitely not advocating that you avoid hard work, but I’m thinking that if it’s a primary driver for recognition or considered the prime factor in success, it’s worth taking a closer look at what kinds of behaviours are being driven and whether they’re what you’re really looking for in employees.

Innovation in Small Business – Who’s Doing It?

Michael Gerber’s “The E-Myth (Revisited)” has really stuck with me the past couple of months since I first picked it up.  One of the fundamental definitions in the first few chapters of the book is the differentiation between the following 3 “people” that actually inside each person who starts a business:

  • The Entrepreneur:This is the dreamer who creates an opportunity out of everything.  As Gerber puts it, this is the the character who “lives in the future, never in the past, rarely in the present.”
  • The Manager:This is the planner and the systems-maker.  “If The Entrepreneur lives in the future, The Manager lives in the past.”  The manager is all about ensuring the status quo is maintained.
  • The Technician:This is the day-to-day doer.  Gerber says that the credo of The Technician is “If you want it done right, do it yourself.”  This is often the one that gets the idea to start a business – if you’re a better technician than your boss, surely you could have a better overall business and make more cash, so you go start one.

Pay careful attention to that third definition.  It’s The Technician that often wants to start the business and this can be great.  If the business gets by and does all right, The Technician can usually handle things and be fine for a while.  The trouble is that The Technician is often too static to adapt to a systemic change and is paralyzed when uncontrollable factors take over.

A few weeks ago ago I had a conversation Cyndee Todgham Cherniak via Twitter.  Cyndee is a Canadian international trade and sales tax lawyer affiliated with Lang Michener LLP and an adjunct professor at Case Western teaching a course on NAFTA.  If you use Twitter, follow Cyndee.  Her tweets about the challenges that regular people are facing when systemic changes occur will give you pause in your day.  Her bio is here and you can follow her on Twitter here.

The conversation began with Cyndee tweeting about a woman who expects her business to decline further than the 50% decline she’s already seen since 2008 once the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) is introduced in Ontario later this year.

This won’t be a forum for the discussion on HST as there are enough of those across BC and Ontario at the moment.  I asked Cyndee about steps this woman has taken to adapt and the response was that she had sold her house, moved to a smaller condo and begun working harder for new clients.

My interpretation (solely my interpretation and not necessarily how things went) is that this woman applied more capital to a venture that was losing favour, set to be directly disadvantaged by the HST and she began working harder.

In my mind, this isn’t adaptation and nor is it conducive to the best outcome for a business.  The rules of the game are always changing and starting a business means that you need to be able to put on The Entrepreneur’s hat when you need to – The Technician cannot see you through a change such as the HST or a downward economy.  Customers are loyal, but the market is always indifferent and harsh.

Gerber’s book really pushes the idea that the proprietor of a business needs to wear each of those hats in a balance that’s appropriate for the respective setting.  I think you can outsource these, too, so long as you’re aware.  If you’re a great Technician or Entrepreneur, you can certainly engage a Manager, or someone who can impart the skills and pieces to get you up to speed in Management to the degree it’s appropriate for you.

Regardless of the method, adaptation is key. Throwing money at a problem isn’t adaptation, it’s a bandaid.  Sometimes it’s the very real solution to a problem, but if you want to bet that solely increasing the intensity of an activity by throwing more money at it will cause real adaptation to systemic change… more often than not, I’m willing to take that bet.



Does the RFP Process Hinder Innovation?

I haven’t written very much about procurement, but working with professional buyers and professional sellers has always been a large part of my work.  I help them communicate.  Often times, I’m helping them communicate via proposals that I’m constructing at all hours of the night or thousands of miles from home (most recently from Tampa, Florida) – it’s good times… to me, at least.

Sometimes organizations know what they want to buy, sometimes they just have a problem and need a solution.  So they put up some form of Request for Proposals (RFP) that basically outlines what they need and anyone who is able, or eligible, to respond, can go ahead and write a proposal to address whatever is needed.  Business owners, or their hired proposal writers, need to know how to explain the value they provide very thoroughly, on paper in a very strict format.

Working in business services like I do is often a bit of a luxury.  Most of proposals can be fairly creative, but, at other times they are not.  Quite often, the organization that would like to buy something dictates exactly what they want a proposal to be and exactly what services or goods they expect.  This can be helpful for them because they get what they are looking for, but hinder the ability for some firms to put together a creative response that’s actually more helpful to the organization than what they originally asked for.

After announcing on Twitter that I was attending a seminar on procurement today that was managed by some great people at NECI, Shane Gibson posed an interesting thought:  “I’d like to know if they think RFP’s quell innovation?”sg_twitter

I didn’t get to pose the question during the seminar, but I do have some thoughts on this after responding to over 80 RFPs since 2003.  I’ve found that organizations sometimes prohibit innovation by virtue of the RFP (whether this is intentional or not, is beyond what I’d like to write here), but I don’t have a yes or no answer.

Sometimes the pricing structure they demand isn’t the structure that will give them the best options, but they don’t know any better or don’t particularly care.  Sometimes they don’t know what they want, but by being as specific as possible they feel a certain comfort level because the responses can be expected to be less open-ended.  I think that their comfort level is misguided and really closes the organization’s mind to what may be the best solutions.

I find that every once in a while though, an organization will know that they don’t know, make the assumption that someone out there does know and can give them the solution.  I tend to see this with organizations looking for new software solutions, but not quite as much with staffing, specifically.  It’s my belief that unless organizations leave these doors open wherever possible, not where comfortable, but where possible, they won’t receive the most innovative solution.  The RFP process provides some accountability and formal basis for a prospective relationship, but too often an organization will mistake this for a rigid solution or service.

Without innovative solutions, an organization is really quelling innovation in their own space, in their industry and ultimately making them less competitive one RFP at a time.  It’s a real slippery slope in my mind.