The Missing Ingredient in Management

workers“Workers must leave their minds at the factory gate.” That requirement originated in the Industrial Revolution and became firmly established in the early 20th century, when a group of zealous pessimists advanced the notion that intelligence is inherited, most people have very little of it, and nothing can be done to increase their allotment.

Leaders in every field were influenced by that notion. For example, educators concluded that thought and judgment cannot be taught and, accordingly, dumbed down curriculums, materials, and teaching methods.

Business leaders were among the most strongly influenced. Frederick Taylor reasoned that since employees had puny intellects, they should not be allowed to solve problems or make decisions but instead just do as they were directed. And who did the directing? Why of course, administrators, assisted by industrial engineers, also known as “efficiency experts.” (The field of industrial engineering was established by Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, pioneers in time and motion study.)

Taylor’s system was known as “Scientific Management,” and it was still ascendant in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I was an industrial engineer for a large corporation at that time and my experience convinced me that Taylor and the other pessimists were wrong—not only is the average person more intelligent than they believed, but intelligence can be increased. (That realization led me to leave engineering, accept a college teaching position, and develop ways to teach creative and critical thinking.)

At roughly the same time, Edwards Deming was attempting to persuade American business leaders to adopt his program of “Total Quality Management” (TQM). A key premise of TQM is that the person closest to a task is in the best position to identify its imperfections. (A related premise is that management, rather than workers, cause 85% of the problems in business.)

As is now widely known, American business leaders were too steeped in the pessimism of Scientific Management to give Deming a fair hearing, so he took his program to Japan. The Japanese, being more optimistic about human intelligence, embraced TQM and as a result soon achieved international dominance in a number of fields, notably auto-making and electronics.

Stunned by Japan’s achievement, American business leaders eventually acknowledged Deming’s genius, honored him, and embraced TQM.  Unfortunately, their conversion (with some notable exceptions) was expressed solely in words. That is, Deming’s ideas were inserted in mission statements and used in slogans, but seldom put into practice. A large American oil corporation, for example, had Deming’s key principles emblazoned on its lobby wall in large letters, but as a long-time employee of the company confided to me, the same old top-down management approach continued.

This strange praise-but-ignore practice was not untypical. A man who served as liaison between Deming and the management of an international corporation told me that a year or so before Deming died in 1993, he had remarked with sadness, “They still don’t get it.”

Deming’s assessment still applies. Great numbers of administrators in public and private agencies “still don’t get it.” I am referring to executives and managers in large and small businesses, colleges, hospitals, nursing homes, government departments, churches, and wherever else there are supervisors and subordinates. These administrators act as if their subordinates are incapable of contributing to problem solving and decision making. This despite volumes of evidence disproving that pessimistic nonsense.

The scandal is actually worse today than it was a century ago. In those days a majority of the workforce did not complete high school. Today most workers have completed high school and many have college degrees. In fact, a sizeable number hold graduate degrees. To treat such individuals as mindless drones is absurd.

In today’s financially troubled climate, with administrators desperately seeking ways to improve their operations, the most promising approach is to capitalize on their employees’ mindpower. If you are an administrator, here are some proven ways to achieve this goal. (If you are not an administrator but know some, you may wish to share this essay with them.)

  • Assess your view of the supervisor/subordinate relationship. You may believe your employees lack problem-solving and decision-making skills, but if you’ve never given them the opportunity to show you, that belief is an empty assumption.  You may believe that only you understand the “big picture,” but the big picture is composed of many small pictures, which your employees understand better than you; so unless you tap their understanding, your understanding will remain inadequate. You may also believe that seeking input from subordinates is a sign of weakness, but in reality it shows confidence in yourself and others.
  • Announce to your employees that, henceforth, you will make no decision until you have consulted with the workers who will be affected. Important: If past experience has made them skeptical, they may not believe this announcement until they have seen you actually apply it on at least several occasions. Even more important: you should understand that consulting does not mean showing them a final document and expecting them to say it’s wonderful. It means involving them in all the thinking stages that lead to the final document.
  • Urge employees to bring to your attention any problem or issue they encounter in the performance of their duties, including those that affect the interests of clients or customers and/or employee morale. Important: employees may be reluctant to do this because they likely know of situations in which administrators became upset with those who identified problems. (This response, though more humane than the ancient practice of killing the bearers of bad tidings, is still not encouraging to employees.) The Japanese have a wonderful expression, “Bad news is good news,” which means that bad news represents the opportunity and motivation to improve a situation. Post that expression in a prominent place in your office and, whenever employees report a problem or issue, remember that they are doing you a favor.
  • When you consult with employees about problems that you or they have identified, do so with groups if possible. Employees will generally be more willing to contribute ideas when one or two of their peers are also involved. (There is not only strength but also confidence in numbers.
  • Before the consultation, let everyone who will attend know the specific problem to be addressed, and encourage them to think of as many possible solutions as they can in advance. Devote the first part of the meeting to sharing those possibilities, withholding all analysis and criticism until later. Studies show that people are more forthcoming with ideas, particularly imaginative ones, in an unthreatening atmosphere. Later in the meeting, or perhaps in a separate meeting, evaluate the possible solutions, considering relevant criteria such as practicality, cost, and impact on people and procedures. Then choose the best idea. Important: don’t expect too much from these consultations at first. It will take time for employees to realize that you are involving them because you respect them and value their ideas, and not merely for the sake of appearances. Besides, facility in brainstorming does not come automatically but develops with experience.
  • Keep all employees informed of decisions. You may believe that keeping decisions to yourself until the last moment will forestall rumors. But guess what? That approach causes the very problem it is intended to avoid. News has always traveled faster by grapevine than any other way, and in this electronic age, the grapevine has gone high-tech. And the more you try to hide information, the wilder and more upsetting the rumors will be. Moreover, when you remain silent as rumors multiply, your employees are likely to believe something sinister is afoot—why else, they will wonder, would you be so secretive? People in that frame of mind are likely to have negative feelings about their workplace, and such feelings virtually guarantee diminished morale and performance.

Tapping employee mindpower in the ways suggested here will produce a host of benefits, including greater economy of effort (many minds make light work), cost effectiveness (less time will be spent redoing flawed initiatives), and improved morale among both administrators and subordinates. And if that is not enough inducement to change your approach, consider this—the more good ideas your subordinates contribute, the more your reputation will be enhanced.

Copyright © 2012 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved