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When will we learn?

When will we learn?

When will we learn, or, as Bob Dylan put it, “When will we ever learn?” That is the question I found myself pondering after reading two very different articles this week.

The first was actually a very constructive piece, “Cultivating Continuous Improvement”.  The word “cultivating” in the headline suggests that Continuous Improvement (CI) is an ongoing process, and what follows reinforces that idea. Several points worth highlighting are:

  • CI is not just another programme. Making it about tools and techniques has that effect and ultimately leads to failure.
  • CI is a culture. Seeing it as such, as being about “principles and behaviours”, links naturally to the idea of its being something to cultivate.  
  • CI is about achieving better outcomes through people.

This last point is critical and worth repeating. “CI is about achieving better outcomes through people.”  That means, as the article also points out, “Sustainable continuous improvement is enabled by a culture of setting standards (for all processes), exposing problems, raising issues to management, being curious, learning through failure and empowering front-line staff.  …  It is built on the foundations of respect, humility and trust.” So why does business generally consider people last?

When 123rf.com_50995252_sIf you doubt that last point, the the second article ought to convince you. The headline, "A Win for CEOs as Judge Blocks Obama's Overtime Rule" alone gives an inkling. But, it is this response from the US Chamber of Commerce spokesperson that rams the point home. "If the overtime rule had taken effect, it would have resulted in significant new costs - more than $1 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office - and it would have caused many disruptions in how work gets done."

Now, of course, I understand the need for businesses to keep their costs down.  Nevertheless that assessment seems to be a reflex reaction that highlights management’s attitude towards employees. You can have no clearer evidence of what I have previously described as “The Great Management Paradox” – referring to people as assets but regarding them exclusively as costs.  

In a workforce where an increasingly large proportion is described as “Just About Managing” and has not seen real income rises for decades, this is inhumane. Especially when – by definition – overtime is employees’ own, personal time. It also clearly illustrates the divide between economics and commerce, and management’s lack of understanding of the connection. The Chamber of Commerce (or at the very least its spokesperson) appears to have forgotten the lessons of Henry Ford.

When such attitudes prevail it is hardly surprising that employee engagement is such an issue. In fact it seems absurd that businesses should spend so much time and effort on employee engagement initiatives when built on such foundations. They are likely to be as effective as a chocolate teapot.  Changing “how work gets done” is precisely what is needed. So here you have an enormous missed opportunity. 

For many roles, time-based employment contracts are an anachronism: an agricultural era relic. Dig deeper and you will see it is rooted in the divide between organisation and individual. This is the root of all industrial conflict and is corrosive and counter-productive. And redressing this demands fresh thinking.

The mutual self-interest around overtime means no solution can ever be found without a totally different approach. And, one that aligns the interests of both parties. For the organisation this means employees who regard the business as their business, while for the individual, it means the employer recognising that employees are investing their lives in the business, and acknowledging the value of that investment. This is what I call understanding that ‘Every Individual Matters.’

This can only happen when there is work-life integrity. And the catalyst for this is to adopt a system where people earn according to the value of their contribution to the efforts of the organisation. This would enable people to manage themselves and take greater pride in – and responsibility for – their work.  They will find ways to be more efficient and effective rather than fitting the work to the allotted time; ultimately to the benefit of both.  That’s why ‘Every Individual Matters’.

When will we learn? 

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