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Working hard is hardly working

Published: 21 Oct 2022

Many businesses are trapped into the belief that productivity means working your staff longer and harder, but lessons to the contrary go back more than 40 years. Robert Menzies CQP MCQI, Continuous Improvement Manager at Fresenius Kabi Ltd, reviews those lessons.

Imagine the following conversation:

“Morning, I’m Rob the new CI Manager. Nice to meet you!”

“Hi, I’m Bob. What’s CI?”

“It stands for continuous improvement. I like to think of it as helping everyone make their processes better, and hopefully making their day easier too.”

“Easier? You should be working them harder!”

“Do you like working hard?”

“Yeah, work hard every day I do.”

“Why? Why do you like to work hard, Bob?”

“Graft always makes the managers notice you and brings in the pennies when you get promoted.”

“How long have you worked here?”

“15 years and proud.”

“In the same job?”

“Um, well, yeah…”

“How come you haven’t been promoted?”

“Well, my manager wants to promote me, but I’m the only one who can do my role. Apparently, I’m ‘critical to the well-functioning of the system’.”

“That makes you sound like good gut bacteria, Bob…”

“What?”

“Never mind. What happens if you get hit by a bus, Bob? I’m not wishing bad luck on you, but what would happen to your system?”

Well, the process won’t run.”

“What would the business do if that happened?”

“It’d be stuffed…”

“That wouldn’t be good, would it? So why don’t you train someone else up to learn the ropes?”

“I just don’t have the time. It’s a full-on job.”

“So, because you like working so hard, the business has become used to your rate of production, you have no time to train anyone else, you can’t be promoted as no one else can do your role, and if you left tomorrow, the business has no continuity plan. Is that right?”

“Um, yes, I guess…”

Driving forces

Let us start in 1943. In A Theory of Human Motivation, US psychologist Abraham Maslow first discussed physiological needs. In the world of work, this is largely satisfied by money, as this enables the employee to buy food and maintain a residence for shelter. Once these are satisfied, the primary need, and employee’s focus, is a stable job in a successful business, with no innate fear of unemployment. This is where the first failures can occur within the leadership community.

Autocratic or strict leadership can cause employees to feel threatened and, when so threatened, will cause them to either act defensively or elusively – a continuous improvement (CI) leader’s worst fear. Using the example of the fictional Bob, we see him working harder and harder, taking on work activities beyond a reasonable and maintainable amount.

An additional way of self-protection may also be for employees to work overtime or chase wage increases to form an extra safety net in their expectation of limited employment. With true 'British grit', Bob works hard to maintain his safety net. In an attempt to avoid upsetting management, he keeps his head down and to further sub-consciously, or even consciously, make his role more secure, he chooses not to find ways to reduce his workload or train others in his critical process.

Situations like this can lead to a form of burnout that has led to the coining of the phrase ‘quiet quitting’, popularised this year by social media, where employees do not cease working but, instead of striving to go above and beyond, just do the bare minimum. Employees who have fallen into this mindset – or reality – of being overburdened, can become clock-watchers and become fixated on hours given and pay received. With this mindset truly fixed within the physiological motivation layer of Maslow’s design, the employee is likely never to seek, or reach, a sense of belonging with their organisation or love for their work. Many people would argue that you do not have to love your job, but I would contest that it certainly helps.

Working more efficiently

Almost 40 years later in his book Workplace Management, Japanese industrial engineer Taiichi Ohno instructs leaders not to be deceived by the appearance of work. His managers would say: “Look how hard they work!” and he would tell them: “That is not called working, they just have fast hands”.

This is the trap that we still seem to fall into across multiple industries in the UK. Leaders still respect employees who appear to be working hard, instead of those who find ways to make their tasks easier and more efficient. Employees, often terrified of not having work to do, find lots of ways to overproduce or overprocess. Perhaps even a bit of inverse 5S may occur, where employees fill time by tidying away tools they need, making them less accessible and consuming time at more critical points of the day.

“Leaders still respect employees who appear to be working hard, instead of those who find ways to make their tasks easier and more efficient.”

Robert Menzies

In many UK businesses, this culture was also the death of one of the best tools for waste reduction – time and motion studies. The mere mention of recording an operator working can be met with loud resistance and potential union involvement. Why? Again, it is the fault of leaders. When used incorrectly, as a stick to catch out slow or demotivated workers (as they see it), it creates a ‘must look busy’ mindset in the workforce. Through years of autocratic management styles and misuse of the tools, workforce behaviours and mindsets have been destroyed, in some cases potentially irreversibly. At least, until a new culture is forced into the leadership team and natural attrition brings through a newer workforce who have only seen that new culture.

Breaking the culture

I would suggest three key methods to any leaders wishing to break this culture:

  1. Connect with the shopfloor, and visit the Gemba regularly so that your employees get used to your presence, reducing their fear of being watched or warned for not working hard enough.
  2. Encourage a CI mindset, and ask employees what would make their job easier, rather than how they can get more work done.
  3. Prioritise culture over profits, and double down on education and cultural change by allowing employees who have saved time in their process to learn about CI and/or train others on their process. The business can then use that education to make the workforce more flexible and able to remove waste. Only then should one seek earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT), return on investment (ROI) and cashflow with the now larger improvement mindset workforce.

If we are to transform productivity in the UK, businesses, leaders and employees must learn that keeping your head down and looking busy does not necessarily bring reward, nor will the employees who follow this behaviour receive the development or advancement they expect.

Read more about the dangers of overworking employees in Gary Jarvis' (CQP MCQI) article on conducting a remote audit, where he gives an overview of specific and unique challenges including ‘Audit burnout’.