Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Bring Back Piece Rates

It occurs to me that the lack of an assembly line type, manufacturing like system is what gets us office workers into such a state of chronic overwork and stress.

If I may reminisce back to business school for one moment, I would recall for you the Lincoln Electric case, where-in, workers needed to be measured on piece rates as a measure of productivity. (Or something like that... it was the first month .. it's all blurry).

If only, we could live in a factory-like world.

Where meetings would be the equivalent of machining stations and where emails would be the equivalent of routing orders on the assembly line. Where the output, measured in presentations, research findings, points of view, reports, loosely labeled as deliverables, would be the measure of productivity. Where the assembly line to reach this level of productivity was fixed, not variable in scope so that some random manager with an ego couldn't send you back to add deliverables or more work at the last second. Where the quality measure of this factory would be some financial metric, say revenue. Where, to scale the system in order to produce the highest quality (revenue) possible, the system would constantly be pruned for inefficiencies and tweaked to optimize.

Theoretically I'm pretty sure that is what modern corporations are supposed to do. Realistically though, what happens is no one sees an assembly line breaking down. No one sees a machine stopping from overwork or work in progress queuing at a particular station. No one tries to retool a particular machine midstream of a particular process. No floor manager is allowed to come to a machine and decide today, because of his or her whim, there should be more attention to detail at this particular juncture.

Instead, working in the average big company feels more equivalent to a story I heard in business school about a bunch of people who would do anything humanly possible to put satellites up in the air for the US military. It tends to feel like these herculean efforts, midnight oil, team fights, team bonding, stories of getting through this .. all in the name of .. not some lofty goal like putting birds in the sky .. but rather the ostensibly pedestrian goal of the requirement for system optimization.

Maybe you disagree with me. Maybe the system was designed for revenue and the deliverables are the machines. This is just one view.

1 comment:

Lilac - Like The Flower said...

If you recall, the downside of Lincoln electric was effectively employee collusion. Everyone agreed on a certain productivity rate, and you'd be socially penalized for exceeding it, since that rest the "minimum bar" for everyone else.

So, I think that's EXACTLY how organizations run.