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When Tough Men Can Cry Openly…

Why do we take our emotional well-being for granted? We talk a lot about “taking care of” it, but do we do as much about it as we talk? The phrase “mental hygiene” is apropos, but the premise of this metaphor conjures up a gross feeling, like, flossing teeth or basic grooming (yet, what’s wrong with doing these acts?!). (The phrase also belittles the complexity of our mind, as if it could be cleaned in a quick ritual act after each meal.) Of course, someone’s emotional/mental mess may be something easily shrugged off in another person. I think that’s part of the problem; the yardstick against which we evaluate our emotional situation and mental state is a fluid measure. When do we know we really need to do some serious mental flossing? When can we get away with a little tooth-picking? Gross…well, we’d better deal with it.

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Thanks to a friend who sent me a link to an Invisibilia” episode in which the focus was on suppressed emotions and forced “positive” attitude. According to the program’s website, “Invisibilia (Latin for invisible things) is about the invisible forces that control human behavior – ideas, beliefs, assumptions, and emotion.” The two stories in this episode explored whether it’s possible to change habits of an entire group of men and to alter a deeply-rooted cultural behavior. The former story took place on a Shell’s deep-water oil drilling rig, Ursa, the size of about two football fields. The latter took place in the first McDonald’s in Moscow.

Most of us are probably ignorant of the nature and degree of danger for oil rig workers. Seeing deaths of colleagues is not uncommon, while physical challenge and injury are common. The culture among oil rig workers is one of ultimate stoicism and hypermasculinity. No show of emotions, even upon witnessing a death; keeping the work process uninterrupted is the key. Most men carry the same bottled-up emotional practice at home as well. Would the practice for regular oil rigs work just as well for an unprecedented deep water drill? In 1997, the first deep water drilling, 4,000 ft deep, even for the experienced oil workers was “like going from Earth to Mars.” The typical 20-person crew for a regular rig would swell to more than a hundred for Ursa, with all the potential hazards and dangers increasing exponentially.ursa-1_custom-8358af5fba589f61d21864036b6ce4551c33fa4b-s900-c85

The main character in the oil rig story, Rick, was put in charge of Ursa. “He was stressed at home, barely able to speak to a son who was about to leave for college. He was stressed at work, in charge of a giant, really complicated venture that he didn’t know how to tackle. Things felt like they were spinning out of control.” Rick’s saving grace was that deep down he suspected and sensed that something was out of kilter and that he didn’t know what to do.

When the student is ready, the teacher will come.

Out of blue, a “crazy one-eye lady” made a cold call to Rick and offered to work with him on leadership issues. Claire Nuer, now deceased, heard about Ursa and thought that she could offer something useful. Rick accepted a meeting and they talked, through an interpreter mostly since Nuer spoke little English; her native language was French. Rick began the meeting with the typical business of scheduling, planning, production, etc. Claire cut him off with “…if you just don’t tell people you’re scared, you’re not going to create safety together.” That caught Rick’s attention. One can bottle up one’s emotions, fears in this case, only for so long. It would work well…only for so long. One might even coast along on another smaller rig, the old familiar environment…only for so long. When all emotions have no outlet for relief, something has to give. At home, Rick was risking losing his emotional ties with his family, and at work, the risks wouldn’t just be Rick’s “incompetence” in managing, but the potential injuries and/or deaths of some colleagues.

So, who was Claire Nuer? She was a leadership coach, founder of Learning As Leadership. Based on new age Est’s method, popular in the 70s and draconian to many, digging deep into one’s emotions to lay the foundation for healing and emotional well-being. The typical Est experience was a day-long encounter (well into 10 or 11PM) that often made grownups cry (by itself, there is nothing wrong with that). Claire and her husband fashioned something similar in their business, mostly breaking down business executives.

Eventually, Rick joined Claire’s sessions, usually conducted through translation. Since Rick’s motivation was largely his broken tie with his son, he even persuaded his son to join him for an encounter session. That session lead to a 180-degree turn for Rick and his son. That was enough for Rick to get his men from the rig involved.

Now, when a boss wants you to do something outside of work, in this case personal development for the better productivity of the team, even when the offer is on a voluntary basis, you take it, however reluctant and dubious you may feel. So, most of the rig workers went; a few refused to do some of the exercises, and remained skeptical. However, those who were more willing to participate ultimately learned to show their vulnerability, and couldn’t say enough good things about the outcomes, not just about work, but more so about their personal lives. Most of these sessions took place while they were waiting for the completion of the rig construction that took 18 months.

During the few long days of sessions (from 6AM – 11PM on some days), these super macho tough guys gradually broke down, cried, shared their stories and feelings… Even the ones who thought “I’ll just reveal a little…” couldn’t stop once they began the process. I understand these principles, but it did creep me out a bit when I read that they eventually managed to overcome revulsion and massaged each other’s feet, demonstrating deep trust. (Author’s note: In many of these intense workshops, participants are required to do things they would normally eschew. Breaking down old boundaries is an important foundation. While I am not totally against some of these exercises, I always find it obnoxious that participants have to behave according to the program’s demands. I mean, there have to be other ways of showing trust. Yes?)

The efforts and money paid off. The accident rate at Shell fell by 84%, and the productivity exceeded the previous industry record. The energy that formerly preserved the hyper masculine norm was now invested in working together, sharing technical information. Instead of fearing to show lack of knowledge or admitting mistakes, the new refrain of “I need help” made the work process much smoother.

All the converts to the new culture openly admitted that as they become more themselves, they like themselves better. “The old way is no fun.”

Darn it, when it comes to story telling, I just cannot economize and fit all the themes and nuances in one post. I will conclude in the next post the changing cultural habits for some Russians who wanted to work for McDonald’s. Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

Some People Are Very Certain About Their Doubt

This American Life,” a weekly public radio show, not only presents interesting human stories, but also often provides insightful social commentaries and analyses. NUMMI of pre-bankrupt GM is a good example (read here, here, and here). And the episode with the intriguing title, “Anatomy of Doubt” still lingers in my mind. While remembering all the key facts, I nonetheless reviewed the show’s transcript to erase all doubts before writing the following.

The “Doubt” episode is yet another reminder that “common sense” can lead us astray. It also reminds me of the classic exercise for communication, or miscommunication, that some of you might have done. This exercise asks groups of five to seven people (or more) to relay a simple message within each group; by the end of the relay, the message can sometimes be unbelievably garbled. It’s a lesson, or a warning, about the reliability of our memory, our tendency to rewrite messages according to preconceptions, and unintended consequences. Yet, we keep doing this on a regular basis…because we are humans.

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There are two stories in “Doubt,” and they are convoluted, as life often is. The stories are based on crimes made more gripping because the doubts that seemingly inevitably surround sexual assaults. (Now, why does sexual assault elicit more doubts, especially from those who are close to the victims?) I am sure that I will not be able to capture all the twists and turns in this short space; however, I will sketch out the essentials; of course, that reduces the mystery and suspense. So, I urge you to read the transcript or listen to the episode.

The first story took place in 2009, in a Seattle suburb, Lynwood. An 18-year old Marie found herself tied up, under threat of a knife, and raped in the middle of the night. Afterwards, the assailant, still wearing a mask, took a picture of her and threatened her with publicity if she reported. She reported.

Marie grew up through several foster care homes; one caregiver, Shannon, became close to Marie even after she moved out. Marie’s last foster mom, Peggy, a teacher, also kept in touch with Marie. Because Peggy lived closer to Marie, she was by Marie’s side when the police were still processing Marie’s apartment. They did a rape kit, documented various bruises, especially around her wrists, and found all the materials the assailant used, his mask, knife, and the shoelace. No fingerprints were found except one set on the sliding glass door.

Peggy recalled her doubt about Marie’s story from the get-go. “ I was like, oh, my God. She’s telling me that she got raped. But I felt–I just felt horrible. I felt horrible that I didn’t believe her.” Later, Peggy called Shannon who shared the same doubt. The basis for their doubt:

  • Marie called too many people the next day to tell her story.
  • Marie had a tendency to seek attention.
  • Marie was surprisingly un-emotional when she related the story, as if “she just made a sandwich.”
  • All the materials used by the assailant belonged to Marie, and Peggy wondered if shoelaces were strong enough to stop someone’s struggling.
  • Days later, Marie was her giggling self, rolling in the grass, and flirting with her apartment case manager who was trying to help.

Peggy eventually let her doubt take over. She called the investigative detective and shared her doubt, and that began Marie’s nightmare. Both of the detectives on the case were men, and the senior one had had little experience in sexual assault cases. Marie’s case was his 2nd or 3rd one.bridge

After Peggy’s call, the detectives brought Marie in to the police station for further interviews, though this time, it was clear that they treated her more like a criminal than a victim. They saw inconsistencies and suspicious points in Marie’s story. Another round or two of more interviews later, Marie broke down and agreed to recant her story. Though when she wrote, “I dreamed…” she was forced to rewrite, “I lied about…I made up this story.” At one point, the police threatened her with a polygraph test, which should have raised a red flag but the detectives later claimed that Marie herself brought it up first. Regardless, Marie eventually was charged with false reporting, for which she had to pay $500 court fee, go through mental health counseling, and meet other conditions for a year.

When the news broke that she lied, it was all over the local TV stations. Marie got hate mail and was crucified online. This was an 18-year old woman who was trying to be independent, with her support network faltering around her. She was alone; she needed help; she needed a lawyer. Her subsidized apartment, housing recently independent former foster children, would normally provide assistance. However, the case manager called the police station and was told that there was no rape.

Later, the case manager called a residents’ meeting, without revealing the purpose of the meeting, and exposed Marie’s situation. Needless to say, the majority of the residents were hostile to Marie. (There was one young woman who saw Marie’s tone and posture as those of someone who was traumatized…this young woman had a similar experience.) After this public shaming, for the first time in her life, Marie thought about suicide.

The false reporting charge meant that Marie’s rape case would be officially closed. The physical evidence police had gathered at the scene was destroyed except for a single fingerprint card that was left behind. Everything else– the rape kit, the bedding, the DNA swabs– they were never even tested in a crime lab, never analyzed.”

Two months after Marie’s case, Shannon saw on TV a news story of a rape case in a neighboring county with the exact same M.O. as Marie’s. Shannon realized then that her friend probably was a true victim. Shannon contacted the detective in charge of the new case and told him about Marie’s story. The current detective called Marie’s case detective and was told that she lied and there was no rape. The current detective never followed up with Marie.

Years later, there was an outside review of the case by a police investigator, a sex crime specialist named Sergeant Gregg Rinta. His report said, quote, ‘The manner in which she [Marie] was treated by Sergeant Mason and Detective Rittgarn can only be labeled as bullying and coercive.’” 

You didn’t really think that I could finish this story in one shot, did you? And I promise there are implications for social psychology and management. Till next time,

 

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

A Random Walk …to relieve some stress

Years ago, feeling like a lifetime ago, during one day of a salary negotiation, I could feel the churn in my stomach, literally and physically. By the end of the day, I got the salary I wanted. And really, at no point during the negotiation was I in disadvantaged position. I was proud of myself for standing firm, but the bile accumulated during the day almost made me throw up. That began my long journey of stomach issues. Undoubtedly, the root cause of my stomach ailment might have been dormant for years and this stressful event just provided the right stimulus for the problem to manifest. My point is that stress affects our physical well-being, and both temporary and prolonged stress hurts us in manners that we can’t usually predict.

Of course what stresses me might be an easy task for another person, and we each have our breaking point, as I presented in my article, “Stress is both Subjective and Objective.”  Often, when people are so accustomed to living in a constantly stressful situation they take their stress for granted and don’t notice it mentally…except their bodies do. By now, most of us are fairly familiar with the theory of body-mind connection. When the mind is over stressed, the resulting consequences range from a weakened immune system to a heart attack or stroke or other serious physical ailment.


After writing the above paragraphs, I stalled. I thought about getting into the science of body-mind connection and tying it to organizational issues, but it’s complicated. Facing a possible, yet another, three-post series on neurons, hormones, memories…just stressed me out. I ended up veering into writing on other types of writing for a couple of weeks. I even got into left-handed painting (I am usually right handed) and discovered that I probably would have been a left-handed person if not “corrected” when I was young. It was both exciting and stressful (what have I missed?). I cleaned the house, a definitive sign of stress for me.   Made desserts; fortunately, I don’t care for eating much of them…still… Basically, I’d do anything but continue writing on this topic.

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A right-handed painting in my fusion series (watercolor)

I could drop the topic and move on. Yet, I like a challenge. Eventually, I decided to do a random walk to get around this “stress.”

During this period, I found some commiseration with others’ stories of stress.

Story 1: Tom had a long and not terribly good day. Arriving home late that evening, seeing his son by the table with a birthday cake on it, Tom said dejectedly, “Oh, son, I am so sorry; I forgot it’s your birthday. I didn’t even get you a gift.” His son said, “Dad, it’s your birthday!”

Story 2: A friend forgot her twin’s birthday one year.

Story 3…well, it’s more like a saying: A male friend’s comment, “’Suck it up’ at work ultimately gets you a hernia.” Oy!

An organization can be over-stressed too. I think this election cycle has really put our country under a lot of stress. What would be the tangible manifestations of prolonged organizational, or societal, stress?

While I find the scientific body-mind connection fascinating, I think how to manage stress is the million-dollar challenge. If you can manage/relieve stress bit by bit over a period, how would you know that you have prevented any bad physical symptoms? To be able to prevent — the absence of negative – doesn’t naturally or automatically bring comfort. It’s not as if one day you wake up and realize, “Yay, I kicked the habit of stressing myself out.” While there are plenty of stories about heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, etc., resulting from stress, we don’t usually know when to separate ourselves from those little stressors…till strokes or heart attacks take place. While one can celebrate a successful recovery from a heart attack or stroke, how do you celebrate not having them in the first place? I know a few people who get stressed over preparing for vacation, or over the disagreements with their mates on the vacation, and over the post-vacation bills.

A dear friend who is as sweet as he can be, nevertheless blows up at people, including his loved ones because he would not let any external disagreement, or whatever he deems unreasonable, stress him. I wish I could do even 5% of that! Yet his relief often is the cause for others’ stress.

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I don’t know the answer. We each have to define and locate our stress points, and we each have to monitor our own environments and our own physical signs for stress. Recently, I found myself worrying myself sick about and fuming over an event that I dread attending. Eventually I filled myself with venomous energy that made me even more unhappy with myself. Happily I stopped; worrying about it would get me nowhere and fuming about it makes me an ugly person. Self-awareness helped. How do you develop that? Methodically, with practice, and with loved ones who can remind you and nudge you toward finding relief…but you need to listen to their suggestions.

Probably equally often, we find ourselves in situations where we can only choose the lesser of evils. So, we are still stressed, just not as much? Is that supposed to be comforting? Yet, I am afraid that least-stressful choices dominate modern life in our organizations and in our society. In the end, I think all we can do is to be aware, to find relief however we can, whenever, and wherever.

Well, I do feel much better now. I hope you have better ways to deal with stress than I do… please share. Till next time,

 

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

NUMMI – When The Giant Stumbles…

It hurts everyone in its path.

Is it possible that all those working at NUMMI (New United Motor Manufacturing Incorporated) were happy team players? Of course not, that’d be against reality, and so not American. However, since the dissenters were few, there was little chance of upsetting production. Ultimately, the question was: If NUMMI was such a success, wouldn’t GM want the rest of the company’s plants, or at least the majority of them, to learn (not copy) from it?

As I have explained before, changes are personal. When people perceive changes as threats to their skills or power, they resist.

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During the initial implementation of NUMMI, GM set up a team of 16 “rising stars” to help with NUMMI. After NUMMI was launched, these 16 “commandos” were basically sitting idle. No one at HQ contacted them for valuable information. After two years, one of them quit, and another one went to GM Brazil to help set up the plant there and created some success, a la NUMMI.

In the meantime, a GM plant in Van Nuys, manufacturing the Camero and Firebird, was as infamous for both defective products and antagonistic attitudes between labor and management as the Fremont plant. The Van Nuys plant was 400 miles south of NUMMI and was facing the possibility of closing, just like Fremont plant did. All the parallels between the two plants should have served as a warning. The Van Nuys plant manager came to NUMMI for lessons; he even got the regional UAW boss, Bruce Lee, to go to Van Nuys to help train the staff. Both management and labor resisted every step of the way. They didn’t want to give up their comfort; they saw the Toyota ways as threatening in three aspects: 1. Workforce reduction, 2. Blurring the boundary between management and labor, 3. Loss of seniority. The trajectory of these aspects was the erosion of trust. (As if there was abundant trust at that point!)

The Van Nuys plant manager shut down the plant for two weeks for some serious training on product improvement and teamwork. However, there were no trips to Japan, no tearful farewells over sushi, and no immediate threat of job losses. During the training, people just went through the motions, probably not unlike most training programs most of us go through, following a 12-step manual, grumbling privately. The 2-week disruption brought only greater skepticism and deeper distrust. In addition, all the suppliers in the system were part of the dysfunctional dynamics. So, in 1992, GM shut down the plant, resulting in a much larger workforce reduction.

Similarly, when managers from the rest of GM visited NUMMI, they often ended up not just criticizing but also attacking the system. They felt threatened…why didn’t they think of this first? Instead of seeing a good example, they were “shown” their inadequacy and were put on the defensive. Remember, change is very personal.

The Van Nuys plant manager had an Aha moment. He said, “You know, they [the Japanese] never prohibited us from walking through the plant, understanding, even asking questions of some of their key people. I’ve often puzzled over that– why they did that. And I think they recognized, we were asking all the wrong questions. We didn’t understand this bigger picture thing.

“All of our questions were focused on the floor, the assembly plant, what’s happening on the line. That’s not the real issue. The issue is, how do you support that system with all the other functions that have to take place in the organization?”

The above quote illustrates the quintessential failure to distinguish between learning from vs. copying success.

Here is a sad example of an extreme case of copying success. “ So I remember, one of the GM managers was ordered, from a very senior level– came from vice president– to make a GM plant look like NUMMI. And he said, ‘I want you to go there with cameras and take a picture of every square inch. And whatever you take a picture of, I want it to look like that in our plant. There should be no excuse for why we’re different than NUMMI, why our quality is lower, why our productivity isn’t as high, because you’re going to copy everything you see.’” Wow! Just “Wow!”

How do you copy attitude? How do you copy relationships and trust? How do you copy wisdom? How do you copy the ability to listen and think critically? And is the ability to listen and think critically of any value without encouraging its use? And on and on. I am not suggesting that the Japanese have all these qualities and Americans don’t; I do contend that the Japanese possessed those not-easily-quantifiable assets in the 90s, more learned than copied, relative to their American counterparts in the auto industry.

Of course, as GM ate more humble pie, they eventually learned. And as Toyota grew bigger, they have had, in recent years, their shares of mishaps and colossal mistakes. It never fails that as soon as one thinks of oneself as exceptional and the best, one begins to decline. This is true for individuals, groups, organizations, and nations. In the case of Toyota, the mantra of “continuous improvement” might sound as if they are open-minded about learning; in reality, that assumption ignores the lessons from the third law of thermodynamics. To reach that elusive and impossible goal of 100% perfection, an entity needs to commit all its resources and energy to the futility of “improving” that very last bit of imperfection. Along the way, the organization chokes off all innovation and creativity.

As for GM, eventually, it began to learn, especially as more and more managers rotated through on-the-job-training at NUMMI; the slow – because giants don’t walk fast — but steady accumulation of learning among these managers did tip the scale. And GM began to improve its quality. Ironically, at the time of GM’s bankruptcy, it might have achieved its highest quality production in recent decades, albeit a little late.

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Are we ever likely to learn from NUMMI? A few may, but most won’t…not necessarily for lack of smarts, willingness, or resources. Most organizations will not learn “properly” because such learning fundamentally requires top management to face facts, or, to truly grasp what the lower levels of managers and other employees know all too well. It also demands that employees, of all levels, have a deep sense of humility, knowing that they don’t always know everything. It’s complicated to change even a small group, let alone a giant organization. “Too big to fail?” Until it fails…then everyone suffers.

In the end, NUMMI closed in 2010. After GM’s bankruptcy in 2009, it pulled out of the JV, leaving Toyota running the plant alone. NUMMI was Toyota’s only unionized plant in the States. Eventually, Toyota decided to close NUMMI. The NUMMI site was bought by Tesla for a fraction of its book value.

I don’t mean to end on a downer note, but let’s be realistic. Till next time,

 

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

NUMMI – A Giant’s Atrophy

The higher rank one occupies, the harder it is to change for better/climbing higher. When you become # 1 — by whatever measurement — what’s next? This query is useful for individuals as well as organizations, but in this space, my focus will be on organizations – big, powerful, lumbering organizations.

I didn’t learn about the NUMMI case till a few months ago (from “This American Life”), but immediately recognized several management lessons. NUMMI stands for New United Motor Manufacturing Incorporated; it was a joint venture (JV) between GM and Toyota, back in the early 80s. NUMMI opened in 1984 and closed in 2010. It was a success story as well as a sad failure story.whynot

Before NUMMI, the GM manufacturing plant at Fremont, California, was replete with problems, from negative attitudes to high percentages of rejected cars. Sex, drugs, alcohol, and gambling were prevalent daily activities, right on the site. The animosity between labor and management was so deep that assembly line workers’ way of fighting management was to sabotage the cars at the line, leaving parts or Coke bottles inside the doors or omitting a few screws, etc. Both sides dug in in their power struggles; it’s as if they were living in their own self-created prisons. The dynamics exactly maps to the topmiddlebottom that I had previously described in detail. Absenteeism was rampant. On any given day, one out of five workers just didn’t show up. Mondays were the worst; there were times management couldn’t start the line.

GM had been losing market share for quite some time by then, especially in the small car market, and Japanese cars had been invading GM’s territory with quality cars. So, while top management in GM could never admit that the Japanese were turning out better cars – after all, GM had been number one in the world market for so long – they recognized that they had to do something. Toyota wanted to make further inroads in the US market, as well, to test Toyota management systems with American workers, and GM thought it might as well find out what all the fuss was about Toyota cars. In their joint venture, Toyota promised that GM would know everything about how Toyota made their cars.

Since Fremont Plant was “the worst of the bad mediocre plants in GM,” GM finally did its housecleaning. In 1982, GM laid off most of the workers and closed the plant. Next year, though, GM was in the planning phase with Toyota to reopen the plant under the JV.

Of course, not everyone in the system behaved selfishly; there were always a few diamonds in the rough. In his college days, Bruce Lee was the running back from the University of Arkansas, and had been the former UAW (United Auto Workers) Fremont chief. GM retained Lee to select a new crew for the JV. It surprised GM top management that Lee insisted on hiring back the same group of people. His reasoning? “…because I believed that it was the system that made it bad, not the people.” In the end, 85% of the new JV staff came from the old hands.

valle 2In 1984, Toyota started bringing the “old” Fremont people to Japan for training, groups of 30 at a time. The first group of Americans who went to Japan was apprehensive: How were they going to be received? Their arrival at the airport was a big news item, and the Japanese workers welcomed the Americans with gifts and smiles. There was one immediate noticeable difference: On average, the Americans were nine years older than the Japanese. Their age difference might or might not account for productivity difference; however, their physical size definitely did. Americans, being bigger than their Japanese counterparts, took an extra second or two to get in and out of the car while working on it. This added up to about 10-15% less productivity. Still, American workers could overcome this disadvantage…if they knew how.

The key in the how was in the “teamwork.” Well, there is teamwork, and there is teamwork. At the old Fremont, the team was huge, and the bosses got to dictate. At the Toyota plant, the team was of five or six people, and they would help each other, trouble-shoot together, and even stop the assembly line to correct mistakes or glitches. And all these were alien concepts to the Americans.

“Under the Toyota system, everyone’s expected to be looking for ways to improve the production process all the time, to make the workers’ job easier and more efficient, to shave extra steps and extra seconds off each worker’s job. To spot defects in the cars and the causes of those defects. This is the Japanese concept of kaizen, continuous improvement. When a worker makes a suggestion that saves money, he gets a bonus of a few hundred dollars or so.” Given my critique of “continuous improvement,” I will get into this potential problem in following posts.

At the GM plants, the cardinal rule was: You NEVER stop the line. Bruce Lee said, “You saw a problem, you stopped that line, you were fired.” Problems piled up. Even without overt sabotage, mounting numbers of rejected cars would be parked in the special lot for repairs at later times.

A veteran GM manager explained the rationale: “Because the theory was, they’ll stop it all the time. They don’t want to work, you know? They want to sit and play cards or whatever. That was a free break for them if the line stopped, so you wouldn’t give them the ability to stop the line.” This is quintessential Deficit Thinking (link). The foundation of this particular strand of thinking is one of the “bad management theories” I critiqued in my very first article.

In a way, Ford started the quantity over quality production. However, when the car was such a novelty and people weren’t terribly familiar with operating this new toy, they were willing to deal with constantly tinkering with the machine. That was way back, no longer the prevailing attitude in the 80s.

So at the Toyota plant, the Americans had to turn what they used to know and how they used to work upside down. As one American eventually learned, “Fix it now so you don’t have to go through all this stuff. That’s when it dawned on me that we can do it. One bolt. One bolt changed my attitude.” This testimony came from someone who used to pack his thermos with vodka back at GM Fremont.

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The newly trained American workers brought back new and shiny principles to the old Fremont environment and began the 2+ decades of quality production for GM…till 2010. The saga continues in the next week’s space in which I will explain how the 85% of the former workers were rehired…certainly not without protests and struggles. Till then,

 

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

Seriously, It’s Not Always About Money

Why do people want to work? Why do you want to work? Is the paycheck the only incentive? Do only professionals care about “the meaning of work?” While there aren’t straightforward answers — and philosophical discussions are called for – Professor Barry Schwartz in his “Rethinking Work” informs us that empirical evidence has pointed to “we want more than just monetary reward from our work,” and it applies across the board

barn catMore than a decade ago, the Yale organizational behavior professor Amy Wrzesniewski and colleagues did a study on custodians in a major academic hospital. These custodians’ job description never included assisting patients in any manner, but many of the custodians would go out of their ways to interact with and assist patients and their families, such as joking around to lighten the mood, tucking in rumpled bed sheets, distracting patients while nurses hooked up tubes or drew blood, or even “dancing for them.” One custodian decided to postpone vacuuming the waiting room because some family members had fallen asleep. For these acts of kindness and considerations, the custodians never got extra pay; yet, it was the prospect of feeling useful that “got them out of the bed in the morning.”

Before you argue that it’s the setting – perhaps hospitals command compassion (not everyone’s experience) – that influences people, other studies also confirm that regardless of the type of work, some people always look for higher purposes in their work environments, including even call centers. I emphasize “some” because not all people desire autonomy and purpose, both professionals and laborers.

The findings from these studies have been widely cited, yet they never seem to have reached management in most organizations. Managers by and large still hold onto the “old” belief propagated by Adam Smith (and his disciples) in his “The Wealth of Nations.” Perhaps from his observations but certainly not from impartial evidence, Smith postulated that “it is the interest of every man to live as much at his ease as he can,” and therefore since people are that lazy, they would work only for pay. Remember, such assumptions were also the premise of Frederick Taylor’s scientific management that helped make assembly line work profitable. A reader, William Farina, author of “The Afterlife of Adam Smith,” responding to the New York Times article, “Rethinking Work,” informed us that Smith made the “lazy” assertion mostly based on his own profession at the time, a professor on a fixed salary. Further, Smith believed that “rivalship and emulation” would better motivate people. And even this assumption has been debunked.

Still, we keep the old assumptions like a security blanket; it may not smell great but it’s comforting…to children who need them.

I don’t presume to criticize Adam Smith’s seminal contribution; however, I resonate with Professor Schwartz’s perspective that we might have taken Smith’s assumptions for granted and created a self-prophetic process. If we assume people are fundamentally lazy, cheating and stealing at every chance, we would set up organizational structures accordingly, with rules and watchdogs. When people at work feel constrained, they find loopholes to give themselves breaks, release boredom, or just to rebel. And lo and behold, the manager spots rule breakers and confirms the assumptions that probably all people are lazy and want to cheat. By the way, aren’t managers workers too, more cogs in the organizational gears? And thereby also assumed to be lazy? The tragedy of such deficit thinking was what prompted me to start writing on these issues.images-2

Human nature is complex; it has dark sides, positive sides, and a whole lot more than 50 other shades in between. How did we latch onto the negative assumptions made by Adam Smith? Why didn’t we instead try to explore and exploit the better sides of human nature? Even Smith’s assertion that there is a trade off between work satisfaction and efficiency – in order to gain organizational or production efficiency, we have to ignore employees’ job satisfaction – has been thoroughly refuted. Research findings have yielded strong evidence that where people find engaging, challenging, and meaningful work they help increase the organization’s overall performance and profits. Conversely, “there is a human cost to routinizing and depersonalizing work.” From this angle, Professor Schwartz’s last sentence in his article, “Half of our waking lives is a terrible thing to waste” is heartbreaking.

I know this post feels like a downer but we need to understand the sources of some of our organizational ills. Hence my constant rallying cry,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

The Cul-de-Sac of “High Achieving”

This time of the year, around the anniversary of my immigrating to the States, I tend to do a little more navel gazing. This year, I find myself reflecting on a term with which I have some issues, “high achiever.” The expression usually implies that someone has achieved more than…but what? It also connotes a high degree of competitiveness.

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I hate competition. Competition makes sense in sports and in related environments where repetition or efficiency is the goal.  In the Chinese/Taiwanese education system, we are expected to be competitive; we need to make our parents look good. Such a burden. My mother, bless her soul, of course wanted all her children to do well (what parents wouldn’t?), but she would never brag about her children’s “accomplishments.” The high school I went to was the best (girls’) high school, and the atmosphere felt like the premed frenzy in this country, although I understood the comparison only after I came to the States. In my high school, we all learned not to let on how hard we had to study for quizzes and tests, and some would actually beam or strut around, albeit subtly, after besting fellow students. Those three years of high school were the worst time in my life.

I don’t accumulate degrees or awards as badges of honor; I simply enjoy learning and exploration. If that means getting degrees and awards, so be it. I don’t regard them as having achieved anything special because for me, it’s all about finding something to be excited about…and the weirder it is, the more fascinating it is.

And I know plenty of people who are like that, regardless of their educational background. Some of the people I most admire have “only” high school diplomas, and some of the PhDs I have known are downright obnoxious. Such superficial accolades are just that, superficial. Years ago, one of the entrepreneurs I met had a PhD in biology but eventually acknowledged and accepted that his true passion was – and still is — woodworking. When he and I compared notes, we discovered what “competition” meant to us both: It’s about competing against ourselves, against some amorphous standards we keep updating, based on everything around us.

The conventional “high achieving” environment is actually quite toxic because it’s based on zero-sum competition mode where my win would have to be at the expense of someone else’s loss. It’s a scarcity mode of being. In such an environment, most people lose by definition. This attitude partly contributes to the ever-increasing stress levels on students, particularly during their high school years, and on employees who see the managerial ladder as the only success measurement. (See the “suggested readings”.) After you achieve a 4.0 GPA – sorry, I mean, 4.75 – then what? After you become a VP, make tons of money, or build five casinos, then what? What will you have accomplished?

I don’t readily know how to make a distinction between “high achievers” and those who forever follow their curiosity and passion. I’d love to hear your take-on and suggestions.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

Suggested Readings: