The ethics of organizational interventions
Many people are suspicious of organizational consultants, and for good reason. Many change efforts fall into three categories:
- The fad or fly-by-night initiative, which takes up a lot of time and, often, energy, sometimes engaging the enthusiasm of a number of people, only to disappear when managers become interested in the next new thing. These pick up the reputation of being great for consulting firms, but a waste of time for everyone else. They may be well-intentioned efforts by well-trained HR groups who do not have the power or resources to get the results they need; they result of a close relationship between a consultant and an executive; the outcome of an executive with a short attention span and an interest in increasing performance; or ineffective processes of a large consulting firm.
- A subgroup of this is the initiative which really does produce good results - but whose outcome is not well publicized, so that employees think nothing has happened.
- The false front, where a change effort purporting to help everyone turns into a traditional time and motion study or an excuse to eliminate jobs or speed up the line (whether the line is real or figurative).
- The less common, but still damaging, false front, where employees' reactions to an initiative are used against them - perhaps by supervisors or unscrupulous managers, without the knowledge of well-meaning people in HR.
There is a long history of management consultants being used to eliminate or demean jobs. Frederick Winslow Taylor, whose name has been attached to Taylorism, was famous for being able to extract more performance by "scientifically" determining the best work processes. For example, he would change the size of a coal mover's shovel, provide frequent rest breaks, train the mover in the best way to shovel coal (based on experimentation), and set up a pay-for-performance system. Unfortunately, Taylor's system - which, while it robbed the coal mover of some control over their own work, did at least make their job easier and less physically damaging - was abused by many managers and consultants to follow. Pay-for-performance systems were constantly adjusted so that the faster people moved, the less they made per unit - Taylor, to be fair, fought this sort of thing. The frequent rest breaks somehow didn't often make it into practice, but taking away the individual worker's ability to make even the simplest decisions did.
For decades, managers, sometimes in the name of scientific management, used every possible means to take away individual decision-making, pushing it upwards through the organization. Even in the heyday of job enrichment and empowerment, many companies were actively, and to their own detriment, pushing power upwards instead of downwards. Some of these stories are outlined in Brave New Workplace, a good book for those wishing to hear the less-told, non-management side of the story.
Organizational development should be beyond reproach. Based on the idea of working with organizational culture to bring out the best in people, the goals and ethics of organizational development are certainly laudable from a human perspective. It's hard to argue with the financial results, either. We have yet to hear of a true "OD" intervention being abused, though of course components of OD - the various tools used by OD practitioners - can easily be subverted or ineffective in the wrong hands.
Generally speaking, the ethical consultant or manager can do many things to make the lives of employees and managers better, and not just in financial terms.
Often, consultants and leaders start out their discussion of a major project by saying that, up front, they decided nobody would lose their job as a result of the initiative. Amazingly, it is possible to achieve great efficiencies without job loss or massive unpaid overtime. For example, in John DeLorean's 1960s overhaul of Pontiac and Chevrolet, jobs were eliminated via attrition - no layoffs - while both divisions increased their sales and profitability. The main formula was breaking down blockages between levels and departments, while increasing communication and pushing authority downwards. Not surprisingly, the same formula allowed Bob Lutz to perform miracles at Chrysler in the early 1990s. Full-scale organizational development turned British Airways around without layoffs, as well, by turning low-quality service into world-class service - using the same employees.
A successful organizational transformation has several key components, whether it is called job enrichment, organizational development, continuous improvement, or quality.
First is empowering employees to do their jobs to the best of their ability. That requires pushing authority, responsibility, and information downwards.
Second is empowering employees to change the system. Drucker is famous for noting that most problems are caused not by employees, but by systems, technologies, and processes. Since those are designed by people, it only makes sense that allowing people to fix problems in systems, technologies, and processes will have a tremendous impact in increasing productivity and quality.
Third is providing a clear vision to people and helping everyone to understand the organizational strategy. Giving people a common vision and strategy motivates people, because they are not working at cross purposes, and it avoids wasted effort. This may be the primary role of the organizational leader.
Any organizational initiative should be measured against whether it has these three components. Does an employee survey result in managers chastizing employees for poor performance, or empowering managers and staff to do something about areas where there are gaps? Does a technology effort provide another way for managers to keep close tabs on employee performance and enforce detailed regulations, or does it allow employees to see and improve their own performance, while spreading or learning from best practices?
Effective organizational consultants and corporate leaders may not speak in these terms, but their perspective is clear to see. A "Chainsaw Al" Dunlop may be great at cutting costs for a year or two, but bankruptcy tends to follow. On the other hand, a Herbert K. Kelleher can empower his employees while maintaining low costs - a win-win situation.
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