Let’s treat our employees more like machines.

My friend Elizabeth has what seems to be an enviable job. She’s the head of global product development for a cool consumer products company. You can see her company’s logo all over the streets of New York and the trails of Yosemite.

Elizabeth is running on empty. She says that feels like she’s a farmer: she gets up at 4:30am just to get on top of her work. She has 18 direct reports, and spends so much time buried in the weeds of product development meetings (moss-colored buttons or spruce-colored buttons?) that she never has the luxury of thinking — really thinking — about the strategic direction of the company product. She rarely has time to mentor or guide her team, either: she’s gone from weekly meetings to bi-weekly, and she cancels more often than not. Oh, and the executive team has requested a 15% increase in sales for 2012 — which means more product SKUs and more development work.

Linda Duxbury, a business school professor at Carlton University, writes often about “corporate anorexia,” which is the point at which the volume of work to be done simply outstrips the capacity of the people in the system to do it.

Corporate anorexia is an apt description of Elizabeth’s circumstances. I mean, really: 18 direct reports? Her company simply doesn’t have the human infrastructure it should have. Its growth has been built on the backs of people like Elizabeth getting up at 4:30am — and that’s just not sustainable.

Everyone knows that machines have a fixed production capacity: you can only get a finite number of widgets per hour out of it. Everyone knows that machines need downtime for maintenance, or they’ll break down. Treat your machines with respect — don’t overload them, don’t forget about supporting and maintaining them, or you’ll have an expensive pile of scrap metal on your hands.

Companies often talk about how “people are their greatest asset.” And yet, they often treat their people worse than their machines. They overload them. They don’t provide the support they need. (18 direct reports?) They expect 24/7 response to email and voice mail.

I don’t know about you, but if this is the alternative, I’d rather be treated like a machine.


12 thoughts on “Let’s treat our employees more like machines.

  1. This seems to be a comment description of the American workplace that I hear these days. It is not sustainable. Don’t even want to debate the cause; but in its present form it is not sustainable.

  2. WRT OD Guru’s comment, it’s not clear to me that it isn’t sustainable, especially in a global market place. The question is, at what cost?

    It’s common at this point to observe that there’s a reason it’s called Human Resources. Our collective track record with resources is not one based on long term thinking or total cost accounting.

    Professional sports teams are an interesting place to examine the phrase “people are our greatest asset”. Clearly, teams succeed based on their players. But it appears that teams have little loyalty or long term commitment to individual players in the main. I think in many ways this is the implicit model of many organizations.

    Perhaps this is one of those Kuhnian paradigm revolutions where it will take two generations for the adherents of the old way to die off before the new orthodoxy can become dominant.


  3. Don — interesting comparison to sports teams, but I think the analogy is imperfect. For one thing, players are often equally “disloyal” and willing to move to a team that offers a better contract — sports careers are short, and they need to maximize their income in that window of opportunity. Second, players don’t move up in the ranks: if you’re a shortstop you’re a shortstop, period. But if you’re an engineer, you can eventually become COO or CEO. And that means there’s an incentive for workers to stick with their companies, even if they’re being overworked.

  4. I agree analogies are imperfect.

    I think (dis)loyalty tends to be industry specific. At times in the software world that I come from, people have been moving even more often than most pro players. Isn’t the new expectation that one’s stint at any job is about 5 years?

    It would be interesting to get some data on upward mobility that would compare general business with pro sports.

    Certainly some of the front office personnel are former players. Elway in Denver being a current anecdotal example.

    Though I imagine if you look at total payroll turnover, the sports teams would be way beyond what most businesses (other than maybe day care and hospitals) experience.

    Thanks for bringing up the thought provoking topic.

    And I wanted to reaffirm that I completely agree with your basic message in the post.


  5. Good point about the 5 year average stint at a job. Like you, I’m not sure that’s an exact number, but I don’t know anyone who takes a job planning to stay there forever.

    I wonder if loyalty is correlated with salary or position title?

  6. The overall premise is correct in that there’s a “capacity” for work and that it is often abused, but I wouldn’t jump so fast that 18 direct reports itself is an indication of a problem. A lot depends on the competence and independence of those folks, their span of control and authority, etc. I have 14 reports and it works just fine – I have more than enough time for what I need to do. But it has taken a few years to slowly get the right people in place, mentor them to have the right perspective and knowledge, and turn them loose. I now spend pretty much all of my day gemba walking and further mentoring – they handle all the real work – better than I could. If any of them thought they were overworked I would take it very seriously as I know they have the correct perspective – and we would fix it.

  7. Kevin – I wonder if a lean organization (or at least an organization that has less waste) enables managers to have a greater span of control and a larger number of direct reports. You’re the first person I’ve met who has so many direct reports and yet doesn’t feel overwhelmed. Coincidence or cause?

  8. While I obviously don’t know your friend Elizabeth, I do wonder what motivates her. I wonder if she ever says “no” to any request. I’ve never had 18 reports. Last time I got up to 10, I made it a point to have the discussion about my capacity and the expectations of the position. For me, motivation comes from being able to be on top of my job and still have a semblance of a personal life. I was motivated to change the status quo of just piling on more work to already busy managers because I wanted to be effective with my resources, not just appear to be more valuable to the company. Remember that if you are irreplaceable in your current role, it will be impossible to find someone to fill your position if you want to move up.

  9. Wesley – in fairness to Elizabeth, the org chart is missing three people who would take on a management role for those 18 direct reports. So she’s doing double (or triple) duty. But that situation only speaks to how the company is willing to overburden individuals.

    I do agree that people in general have an incredibly hard time saying no. I have some pet theories as to why that’s so tough for people; perhaps I’ll put that in another post.

  10. This post reminds me of something that has been bugging me about how Galllup describes engagement. They say it is about how psycologically commited a person is to the organization. Why doesn’t Gallup measure if the organization is commited to their people? I think that measure may show some root causes why people move on or are actively disengaged.

    Depite slogans of “people are our greatest asset” a lot of organizational actions treat employees as fungible (which sounds like Elizabeth’s position). I can understand if she had to take on more direct reports for a short while until someone was replaced, but making demands of increased sales while in that situation shows leadership lack of understanding about their current capacity. Chances are the people may never get replaced and her “temporary” assignment of more direct reports becomes permanent.

  11. Brian – I’ve seen the same thing as you, where a “temporary” increase in workload due to short-staffing becomes a permanent state of affairs. The thinking, I guess, is that if you can handle the work for the next two months, then why not over the longer term as well. But that’s just short-sighted, and means treating people like machines. No, wait. . . .

  12. Pingback: Management Improvement Blog Carnival #159 | My Flexible Pencil

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