Why People Are More Important Than The Process by Employee X
If I were asked to identify what should be the main takeaway from my book, Look Before You Lean: How a Lean Transformation Goes Bad–A Cautionary Tale, it would be that process over people is an ass-backwards way to go. Any approach at transforming a business, be it through lean or any other methodology, is doomed to failure unless it is a people over process approach.
In my chronicle of what went wrong at the company where I worked for nearly 15 years, three process-related changes were implemented that either ignored or overrode employee sensibilities. As a result, each of those changes added to the overall failure of the intended transformation.
Lack of Personal Space
The first was the elimination of private offices and cubicles to create an open floor plan, with the goal of breaking down silos and increasing workflow. This implementation ignored considerable empirical evidence, such as a Berkeley study of 65,000 workers world wide that showed that workers at all levels put a high value on having some semblance of personal space and that productivity is adversely affected when they are forced to work in open space.
Any approach at transforming a business, be it through lean or any other methodology, is doomed to failure unless it is a people over process approach.
Standard Work Hours
The second was the imposition of standard work hours on a staff that had long been accustomed to flextime. Although many work environments are locked in to set hours, those that aren’t have the great advantage of offering flextime as an added benefit. Most employees value time almost as much as they value money, and a company that allows employees more or better time for family, education, or relaxation is a company making a huge deposit into its reserve of employee goodwill. Yet in the transformation I witnessed, this benefit was eliminated for the stated purpose of making it easier for management to track the comings and goings and hourly work habits of staff. It was not just a choice of process over people, but in spite of people.
Implementing Unhelpful Process Tools
Third was a grab bag of process tools that were introduced to employees in rapid succession with little attention to how helpful they actually were. The intent seemed more to dazzle employees than engage them. A people over process approach would have required a sit-down with staff to learn what their needs were, followed by the search for the right tool to meet those needs.
Most employees value time almost as much as they value money, and a company that allows employees more or better time for family, education, or relaxation is a company making a huge deposit into its reserve of employee goodwill.
It is understandable for people to fall in love with a process once they’ve mastered it and seen it work in a given situation. What is not understandable is how they can ignore the fact that process is static and people are dynamic. What works with one group of people under one set of circumstance will not necessarily work with another group under different circumstances. One-size-fits-all is a mirage, and a counterproductive one at that.
What was particularly maddening about the transformation failure that I observed is that the lean practitioners who directed it should have known better. In What I Learned from Ohno, a talk delivered in January 1998, Michikazu Tanaka, a former executive of Daihatsu Motors and a chief disciple of the acknowledged godfather of lean, Taiichi Ohno, said:
“In my talk, I have covered only some of the most trying incidents and most gratifying incidents in our work with Ohno-san. I hope that my remarks have conveyed the most important message: that motivation is everything. Tools and methods are secondary. Any tool or method will work if people are motivated. And no tool or method will work if people are not motivated. That’s what I learned from Ohno-san.”
One-size-fits-all is a mirage, and a counterproductive one at that.
Yet, for two of the five years they had been given to transform my company, the transformation agents continued to give employee engagement a low priority. I believe they avoided the subject for two fundamental reasons. One, they truly believed their process alone would ultimately triumph over personality, character, and biology itself. Two, their skill set left them ill equipped to deal with people issues. They were convinced that motivating people was simply a matter of a spanking new chart or a reconfigured traffic pattern.
Process cannot make a harmony out of the power-hungry, the fearful, the starry-eyed, the spiteful. Each, in that incredibly clever human way we humans have, find a way to ride the process to whatever we want at our core – more power, more security, affirmation, a redress of grievances. People use tools as befits their own biases, tendencies, and goals. No process will make a bad manager good or a weak manager strong, or anybody at all more responsive to the process rather than their own personality, unless that personality has an overweening affection for process. Common sense tells us that we are made of diverse personalities, and work environments function best when personalities can be made to bend and blend, rather than conform to a rigid and artificial model. Every process works only to the extent that people understand it, accept it, and allow it to work.
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