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by Craig N. Clive, CCP, SPHR | March 31, 2009

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Early in my career, I worked for an old-line manufacturing firm as the human resources manager. Management considered the employee population as mindless, robots that had to be closely supervised and managed. Many of the jobs were paid on a piecework basis and armies of time study engineers continuously timed and retimed employees performing their various tasks. Methods engineers often accompanied these time study experts to ensure that the correct manufacturing and assembly processes were being utilized. The process of measuring these tasks usually involved little or no discussion with the employees, other than to tell them when to begin and to make corrections when methods sheets were not being strictly followed.

Despite the strict adherence to procedure that permeated the company, everything was considered to be running well-except for one assembly area. Rejects were unheard of in this area. The employees continually achieved productivity at 150 percent of standard. Management was baffled and considered a variety of schemes to uncover how the employees were continuously producing above standard. Because the time study and methods engineers spent hour upon hour ensuring that the employees were adhering to methods sheets, the employees felt obliged to follow the methods sheets to the letter when being studied.

I made walking the halls a part of my daily routine and stopped often to speak with employees about their jobs, families, etc. I had not yet been indoctrinated enough not to mess with the robots.

On one of my tours, I dropped into the work area with the above-standard productivity and noted everyone hard at work. I didn't have a stopwatch and appeared harmless enough, so the employees kept on working. I began to chat with the group about the weather and how the Red Sox were going to do this season (a mandatory conversation in Boston), and casually asked the most senior person about the assembly operation. He carefully explained what he was doing and I noted that he seemed to complete each piece in a very brief time. I finally gathered the courage to ask how it was that the employees were able to complete pieces so much faster than standard. The employee carefully showed me how the methods sheets determined assembly, then he showed me how he had figured out how to complete the assembly process. There was a significant difference in the way he and the other workers performed the tasks and the prescribed, "official" method for completing the work.

I then asked why the methods engineers had not incorporated his assembly process into the time studies. He replied, "I've been working in this area almost 20 years and you are the first person to ask me how I am able to exceed the standard."

There's a lesson for all us in this story: We, as managers, often feel that our education and position as managers make us smarter than the employees working for us. In some cases, we are. But in situations involving accomplishing a task or work process, the employee knows far more than we ever could. They perform the task many times on a daily basis. They have the opportunity to consider options and select the best method to get the job done. We often overlook this fact and relegate our employees to the status of mindless machines.

In the coming years, we will find fewer candidates to fill our jobs as the working population ages. Employees want to do a good job and want to be recognized. We need to understand this and make employees part of the team and work with them to solve problems and increase productivity. Our employees have brains, so let's make sure we utilize their knowledge and experience!!

Craig N. Clive, CCP, SPHR, a nationally recognized expert in the design and implementation of performance based reward programs, is a Principal at Baylights Compensation Consulting, LLC.

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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