I remember some years ago visiting a large warehouse and distribution centre on the Eastern Seaboard that belonged to one of my corporate affiliates. Sadly, my associates in this operation were losing money by the bucketload, while (happily) my operation was turning in a tidy profit. I do not revel in the misery of others, but there were reasons why I was making money while they were not. If I could get them to make money, it would be a win-win solution for all.
My associates were terrific people, well-intentioned, brilliant, and skilled. But they were baffled by their lack of success vis-a-vis profitability. As one of the first orders of business, I was taken on a tour of their distribution operations. They had recently purchased a WMS system from a third party provider, and I was generally impressed with its capabilities. Their market was huge – perhaps ten times larger than mine. Opportunities to exploit economies of scale were there.
As I walked around the warehouse, however, I felt like I was driving down a freeway where the view of gorgeous parkland was completely impaired by billboards. There were more slogans, motivational sayings, targets, goals, and miscellaneous signs than you could shake a stick at. If I were looking for a sign to point me to a fire extinguisher (and I did), it was more likely than not that it would have been obscured by a banner which said something corny like “There’s no “I” in “TEAM.” Holey mackerel! I honestly had no idea what colour the walls were painted, or if they were painted at all.
Superficially, the banners became eye pollution. The messages were entirely washed out. There was no focus, no impact. No worker seriously paid attention to them. But the signs and banners were a symptom of deeper ills.
As I started to peel back the layers of the onion, I discovered that enormous resource (financial and administrative) being devoted to setting targets, monitoring targets, measuring employee efficiency, and capturing attitude. Targets frequently conflicted with each other. Connection with the customers became obscured. There was little value-add. With hundreds of goals, there was no focus. Inordinate attention was paid to picayune errors. Hours, days and weeks were spent in meetings reviewing and measuring results, setting new goals. All relevant trend lines pointed down. I didn’t have to ask about employee morale. It stunk. Like Tiger Woods, there eyes were collectively taken completely off the ball. It was MBO on steroids. “That which gets measured gets done” run amok.
As Mary Walton pointed out in her book “The Deming Management Method”, slogans never helped anybody do a good job. Dr. Deming said “they generate frustration and resentment.” There is an inference in sloganeering that if employees simply tried harder, they would do better. This offends the worker – it does not inspire her.
“You can beat horses,’ Dr. Deming said, “they run faster for a while. Goals are like hay somebody ties in front of a horses snout. The horse is smart enough to discover no matter whether he canters or gallops, trots or walks or stands still, he can’t catch up with the hay. Might as well stand still. Why argue about it? It will not happen except by change of the system. That’s management’s job, not the people’s.”
I remember clearly, on more than one occasion, being suckered in by my employers by offers of bonuses for supporting and achieving sales goals. They then proceeded to set the sales goals so high, that no one could ever achieve them. No bonuses were paid. Oh, let me correct that….bonuses were paid to company executives for their incompetence, and for leading the company directly into oblivion and bankruptcy. Bonuses for firing people. Bonuses for destroying families and communities. Sinful.
Management needs to get into the process, and make it easy for workers to do a good job. But many in senior management have grounding in the Dark Art of marketing, and as such are masters of smoke and mirrors.
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