This post is about quality and compromise. It all started with a bout of insomnia that found me awake at somewhere around 3:00 a.m. listening to an out-of-state ratio station broadcasting, of all things, a business program. I can’t provide attribution to the story I heard, but it was fascinating.
It began with a familiar situation. A relatively small manufacturing company was on its last legs, and, through complicated circumstances, an outsider found himself in the position of trying to save it.
The first thing that he did – this is the amazing part – was to start teaching the workers basic accounting. These were people whose education on average ended in the eleventh grade, so many weren’t even high school grads. That didn’t stop him. His objective was to get them to the point where they could read and understand balance sheets. Once he had trained them to that point, he showed them the books.
For the first time in its history, everybody in the company genuinely understood the huge challenges at hand. And, over time, the company returned to health.
I probably would have forgotten the whole story were it not for a review of David Kusnet’s new book, Love the Work, Hate the Job that caught my eye. According to reviewer Seth Brown of USA Today, the book’s theme is, “Unions are good, and cost-cutting management is evil.” I’m not so sure about that. But I was struck by the comments about workers’ frustration about conditions that forced them to do less than their best work and thereby compromise quality. This is believable.
It’s undoubtedly true that many managers really don’t understand what the people on the factory floor are up against – and the bigger the company, the truer it gets. But – and here’s where the radio program comes in – the workers on the factory floor typically don’t know what management is up against either. So, for example, cost cutting measures may appear just plain stupid to the people on the floor, even though they make sense in the larger scheme of things.
In big companies, we’re talking about a two-way communication problem here. But for smaller companies, it’s highly likely that managers do know what the workers on the factory floor are up against. It’s the workers who are in the dark. That is, unless someone has taught them how to read a balance sheet.
I would imagine that the idea of opening up the books to the workforce will seem pretty extreme to most readers, and I agree. It is a tactic that should probably be reserved for sinking ships. But I do believe that some measure of communication from management to the workforce about how the company is doing will help keep the ship afloat.
Bottom line: My recommendation is that when you’re forced to cut corners, get everybody together and explain why. And then, figure out a process that offers disgruntled members of the workforce a chance to come up with better ideas.
P.S. If anyone can identify the company I described, or the source of the segment, please let me know.