5 Steps to a Progressive New Fish
Hi, my name is Andy and I have the misfortune to work for a large American corporation. Is there a 12 step program that can help with this affliction? Undoubtedly there are probably a great many people who are quite content with earning a living in the corporate sweatshop and to those of you who are I say, knock yourselves out. Literally. Because you see, American corporations do not live in the real world. I’m not sure which world they do live in, but it sure as hell isn’t one I want to inhabit.
Five years ago the mega-corporation I work for decided it didn't want part of its business group anymore and sold it off, of which the part I work for was included. I believe the euphemism used was "refocussing their direction", or some such business-speak nonsense. Us splitters were picked up by an investment group and formed into a new company, with a new and completely ridiculous name made up of two words combined together to make a silly new word. It took them ages, and no doubt many millions of dollars to come up with that. If you've seen the movie "Office Space" you'll know exactly what I'm talking about, and if you haven't, go rent it. Now. Anyway, up to that point it wasn't too bad working in the corporate world. Though we were part of a large organisation they pretty much left us alone to do our own thing with little involvement from the "big boys". We knew what we were doing and we did it well, consistently beating our budget by a considerable margin year after year. So they left us to it - it wasn't broke, so they didn't try to fix it. That all changed a year or two later when we got a new CEO who was an ex-GE man.
Now, General Electric, so I'm told, is THE model for success in the mega-corporation world. So naturally, ex-GE man brought the GE manifesto with him, along with an awful lot of his GE buddies (can you say "rampant nepotism" kids?). So much so, in fact, that I began to wonder if we were going to change direction entirely and start making light bulbs, electrical appliances and jet engines.
Now all of a sudden, the “big boys” started making themselves known to us like there was no tomorrow. There was the slow but ever increasing trickle of VIPs visiting the site. Then came an increase in metrics reporting, none of it of any meaning or value of course, but we still had to take time out to compile and submit it on a regular basis. Then came more and more teleconferences, webexes, Town Hall Meetings (oh, how I love those), filling out spreadsheets, requests for information for projects that never seemed to go anywhere, surveys, etc., etc., etc. It seemed we were spending more time reporting to the Americans than we were actually doing any real work. And we still are, even more so.
Then came the dreaded Kaizen events and…. Progressive 5S. 5S, for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of having this crap forced down your throat, is a 5 step program for cleaning and organising your work area. I can’t tell you exactly what the 5 Ss are, because I immediately and permanently removed them from my memory as soon as I saw them. It is a juvenile, condescending bit of communist-esque doctrine to turn people into little corporate automatons who have no independent thoughts, creativity or individuality. Which of course is exactly what coporations value in an employee. 5S is the kind of thing you’d write on the blackboard for a bunch of 5 year olds. “Look kids, this is how we clean our play areas. Later on, if you’re good, we’ll draw a big picture of a fish and write some words on it”. And it doesn’t stop with telling us how to clean up, it also deems that we label everything in big words so we know exactly what everything is and where it is. It’s not enough to have to go out and buy shelves and cupboards to put things in, they must be labelled so we know where all the things are that we’ve hidden away out of sight. I tore the sign off my cupboard in a fit of pique one day and declared my little corner of the office a “5S-Free Zone”.
Some, I’m told, even go as far as taping lines all over their desks to designate areas to put things in. “Stapler go here” , “Pens go here”, ad nauseum. Fortunately the site I work at has not succumbed to that level of madness – yet. A note to our “Continuous Improvement Manager” (a made up title if ever I’ve heard one): if you come anywhere near my desk with a roll of tape make sure it’s quality stuff, because you will quickly find yourself dangling out the window by it….
Progressive 5S is supposed to improve efficiency and therefore allow us to get more work done, but it doesn’t do anything of the sort. It actually decreases efficiency because it forces people to work in a manner they are not accustomed to and in an environment devoid of any individuality and personality. This demoralisation causes resentment and frustration, which means we work even less efficiently. Plus of course we spend more time cleaning, organising, labelling, inspecting and being inspected, which means we get even less real work done.
Naturally the American corporate types have jumped on this nonsense like a Labrador on an inflatable Poodle smeared in liver paté. One of our visiting VIPs even told us she’s 5Sed her house. All I can say to that is I feel very sorry for her family.
Then we come to the other big corporate fad, the Kaizen event. Kaizen is some sort of Japanese problem solving model that is all the rage in the business world these days. Americans foolishly believe that if they adopt Japanese tactics that they will actually stand a chance of competing with the Asians in business. This is about as flawed as thinking that if I wear a red cape and blue tights I will be able to leap over tall buildings and run faster than speeding trains. The Japanese, Koreans and Chinese are kicking American and British butts in business because they come from a culture steeped in hard work and discipline. Americans and Brits on the other hand, are lazy bastards who will down tools at the first hint of industrial malcontent. Think British Leyland in the 1970s. You can run all the Kaizen events in the world, but until you change Western culture and thinking you will never compete with the Asians. Let’s face it, that just ain’t gonna happen. As further proof of the fallacy of Kaizen, I need only say two things: Toyota and Fukushima. Kaizen didn't do either of them much good recently did it?
I take a pragmatic approach to problem solving. If it’s broke, find a solution and fix it. Job done. The Kaizen approach on the other hand, is to put teams together to find a problem – or to create one if none can be found - then put more teams together who will then spend hours covering the insides of meeting rooms in sticky notes, flow charts and pictures of fish (anyone unfortunate enough to get sucked into a Kaizen event will know about “the fish”) and even more hours in teleconferences spouting nonsensical jargon until eventually the problem loses the will to live and commits suicide. Problem solved.
We don’t need teams, meetings, sticky notes, flow charts, business jargon or crudely drawn pictures of sea life to solve problems, especially when the result often causes more problems than it has solved. However this suits the American business philosophy to a T as they seem to think that the more time you spend in meetings talking about business, the more productive you are. If you get to draw pictures and speak in trendy but meaningless jargon at the same time then that's just about as good as it gets. Is it any wonder then that they’ve been getting their asses kicked for decades by countries who just get on with it, rather than sitting in meetings talking about it?
Similarly, we don’t need a 5 step program spelling out in child’s terms how to clean our little play areas. It’s bloody obvious, or it should be. To me, a person whose desk has nothing on it is a person who doesn’t have enough work to do. The bottom line is, do we produce the work required and in the quality expected of us? If the answer is yes, then clearly it's of no consequence how neat and tidy our desk is, how many labelled cupboards we have or how devoid of individuality our work area is. We get the job done and that’s what it should be all about. If you demoralise and dehumanise us by inflicting these ridiculous iron curtain doctrines on us we will resent you for it, and resentment breeds contempt. Contempt breeds low productivity. So if we’re not actually producing anything worthwhile, or indeed anything at all, then what’s the bloody point of going to work??
I propose modifying Nike’s famous “Just Do It” and creating a new company slogan. “Don’t Do it. Just Talk About It”.
Back to Rants Main