HR Group, founded in Edmonton Alberta in 1993, is a partnership of highly experienced management consultants who specialize in organizational effectiveness and human resource management, and promote participative, lean, and cost-effective management practices. All partners are Certified Human Resource Practitioners with extensive senior level experience in both the private and public sectors.

Check Your Alignment

Reprinted from “Productive Workplaces” (January, 2005), the HR Group newsletter.

There is a prevalent paradox in many of today’s organizations. They try and create a more productive workplace where employees are intrinsically motivated to show initiative and creativity and provide excellent quality and customer service. Yet they retain many bureaucratic structures and systems of governance that inhibit such change and serve merely to create another flavor of the month. The following table shows some of those desired employee behaviors and the organizational practices which inhibit them:

ORGANIZATIONAL INHIBITORS

Productive Behaviors Organizational inhibitors

Customer service Volume/cost focus

Focus on the “work” Rigid, narrow “job descriptions”

Ownership Lack of delegation

Teamwork Focus on the individual

Knowledge and creativity Rigid policies/rules

Initiative Control orientation

Entrepreneurship Paternal/authoritarian

Problem resolution Multi-level hierarchy

Continuous improvement Set, established methods

Cross-functional/multi-skilled Functional specialization

These are, of course, only a few of many possible examples. One that has always remained with me stems from my former work as a Director of Human Resources for a major hospital. Although I was responsible for being the hospital’s chief spokesman at the bargaining table with six unions, I was not allowed to claim for my parking fees at the hotel where the collective bargaining took place without an authorizing signature from my supervisor, the president. I could be responsible for the negotiations surrounding one payroll of over $30 million, yet I couldn’t be trusted to claim for my own parking fees of only a few dollars! I had to waste my time and the president’s in a useless and meaningless bureaucratic procedure. To get around this procedure, my secretary would claim the expenses as her own, I would sign for them, and then she would go to the Finance Department and receive the cash that she in turn would give to me. The irony is that all the staff in the Finance Department knew that this was a typical “work around”, yet they knowingly complied as long as the proper paperwork was completed.

It is critically important that one root out all such organizational practices; but what is even more important, however, is the understanding that all such inhibitors must be addressed at the same time. The organization must be viewed as one whole system, with all parts interlocking and interrelated, rather than working at cross purposes with each other. It is only in this manner that we can avoid contradictory messages that disrupt and undermine any attempt at organizational and cultural change and result in another flavor of the month.

This view of the organization from the perspective of a single interrelated system is at the heart of the teachings of W. Edwards Deming, commonly accepted as the father of quality management, and others such as Peter Scholtes who carried on the teachings of Dr. Deming and the author of The Leader’s Handbook. Systems thinking is also the focus of the best selling novel, The Goal, by Eliyahu Goldratt. It is also at the heart of the concepts of “lean” manufacturing and “lean” enterprises in general. A “systems” view of an organization is not just a useful tool for a manufacturing or plant setting. It is not just an engineering tool; it is a point of view that should be applied to the entire organization.

This is what we mean by alignment; all parts of the system or organization must be looked at to ensure that they are all aligned with the core principles of a productive workplace.  It is not enough to merely create vision and mission statements that have such wonderful motherhood statements as, “Our employees are our greatest asset.” or “We value quality and service above all.” Too many organizations preach such lofty sentiments and goals and then go purchase the latest program in the hope that this will act as the silver bullet that changes their organizational culture and creates a more productive workplace. They want total quality management, but they will not relinquish control and assign responsibility to the individual employee. They want continuous improvement, but they will not relinquish all the bureaucratic rules and regulations that stifle any creativity. Such misalignment sends contradictory messages that negate the programs in question, create the latest flavor of the month, breed increasing cynicism and hypocrisy, and lead to even worse productivity.

The need for alignment is true for the various people management practices that we have presented in this newsletter over the years. None of these practices, for example, will have much chance of working well if the overall management style is not a participatory one. The traditional authoritarian or even paternalistic style of management, by its very nature, creates too many controls, a hierarchical structure, a lack of continuous learning and feedback, and other organizational inhibitors to a productive workplace.

To spend little time and effort in hiring new staff is self-defeating; yet many organizations take far too little time in ensuring a good “fit” with new hires. No amount of staff development and good performance management will be of much use unless you “hire right” in the first place.

On the other hand, spending the appropriate time and effort in hiring is completely negated if the organization does not provide the required orientation and ongoing training and coaching. No matter how good the new hire is, they will be set up for ultimate failure without the appropriate training and guidance. As a matter of fact, most of today’s employees will probably leave first out of sheer frustration and in order to ensure their own successful career development. Good employees do not waste their time today by working for an organization that will not recognize and nurture their knowledge, talents, and initiative.

The same is true for performance management. No amount of performance feedback, positive or negative, is going to be successful if you don’t hire the right employees in the first place and ensure that they receive the appropriate training. On the other hand, you will lose your good employees if you are not willing to deal with poor performance issues at all levels in the organization. Good employees will not tolerate a poor supervisor and will resent working alongside other employees that are incompetent or have a poor attitude. Termination of those that do not fit is a management practice that cannot be avoided if all parts of the system are to operate as effectively and efficiently as possible. No matter how well the other parts of the system work, if poor performers are not terminated, the good performers will view this as a clear sign that management is not really serious in their intentions to create and sustain a truly productive workplace.

The need for less hierarchy and a flat organizational structure is an area that is frequently neglected and, therefore, misaligned with other management practices. This is probably because a flat organizational structure has a very direct impact on management positions. It is far easier to talk about delegation of responsibility than it is to actually abolish unnecessary management positions. It is the same unfortunate attitude of self preservation that we see so often in downsizing; employees, no matter how valuable, are easily laid off, while management positions, no matter how redundant, are usually left untouched. This hypocrisy does not go unnoticed and understandably breeds extreme cynicism. It is not enough to talk the talk; managers have to walk the talk if they expect results.

As far as the whole area of controls is concerned, we have already seen the example of my parking expenses. There are countless such examples in virtually all organizations. Restricted signing authorities, passwords for the photocopier, inability to access long distance on the phone, need to know controls on information, rigid job descriptions, policies for every conceivable eventuality, rigid vertical channels of communication, the list is endless. All such controls send contradictory messages to all employees; they imply that the employee cannot be trusted, they stifle initiative and creativity, and they stand in the way of quality, customer service and continuous improvement. They also do not provide true risk management; the best risk management is a well trained and knowledgeable employee that is encouraged to use their informed discretion.

 

Rewards are probably the most often misaligned and again, as with organizational structure, the reason is that truly sharing the rewards with all employees directly affects management’s own pocketbook and is against their own self interests. There are countless examples of hypocrisy in this area that we can read about everyday. The “golden parachutes” for incompetent executives, the enormous executive salaries despite poor organizational performance, and the rollbacks to employee wages, but not to management’s, are just a few such examples.

If the will to create a productive and participative workplace is sincerely there, then many of these practices will come naturally and evolve over time. They will need constant effort and attention. Mistakes will be made, but they will be rectified with the understanding and assistance of all staff at all levels.

The problem is the hypocritical approach that is so often the case, where there is no sincere will on the part of management to relinquish control and share rewards, for example. The hypocrisy  and insincerity, that is reflected in such misalignment, will always show through and create, once again, another flavor of the month.

All the management practices that are required to create and sustain a truly productive workplace are interrelated and must be aligned with each other and the core principles of a productive workplace.