Joseph J. Lacroix
There is a rampant virus in the workplace that's destroying work capacity. The
virus breeds particularly fast in organizations that have either been very successful
or have suffered the consequences of a reduction in workforce size. Like most viruses
it remains undetected for extended periods of time, and is therefore difficult to
diagnose and cure. Yet a cure is possible if timely detection and quick remediative
action is taken.
The International Standards Organization (ISO) certification process is a potential carrier for the virus, although this is only one possibility. Other carriers include financial investment programs that involve private office structures, and down-sizing initiatives without a concurrent reduction in work space. The organization will often develop symptoms around these familiar programs that ultimately deteriorate performance, productivity, innovation, effectiveness and profitability. Elevated anxiety among middle management ranks, a general feeling of apathy among the front-line workforce, and senior management propensity to reorganize around and engage in faddish off-the-shelf quick fixes can often also be observed.
If your organization is suffering from these or related symptoms further testing is recommended. As is the case with most serious illness, medication alone will not produce lasting results. A significant change that includes breaking old habits and replacing them with a set of health routines, along with frequent check-ups is considered by experts to be the only real solution.
The virus described above is real, although not actual in a medical science sense. The ISO-lation Virus is a handy play on the word "isolation," a condition that is robbing the workforce of critical capacity. The warnings are very real. The signs are at our organizations doorstep, or at least roaming around the neighborhood looking for an open door and easy access. The solution to this epidemic is cool deliberate thinking, not panic.
TQM, Continuous Improvement, Reengineering, and the ISO Certification Process:
Clearly some of the most productive advances in management sciences in the last 25 years have emerged through the movement to improve quality and customer service by eliminating the guesswork from important work. In our efforts to do the right thing, we've advocated taking a hard look at our processes and have reengineered those processes to eliminate waste, and improve efficiency. Great initiative so far, but not far enough - yet.
In many cases, to create efficiency, we may have programmed out effectiveness. In streamlining our processes we've tried to eliminate or minimize the human interactions that feed the organization engine of innovation and creativity. In the process improvement routine, we've often created a workforce of isolated individuals unable or unwilling to interact effectively with each other. This interaction creates organization culture that is an effective antibody for the ISO-lation Virus. When programming more effective work processes consider deliberately programming in those interactive activities essential to healthy organization culture rather than trying to minimize them.
Reinvesting the Profits from Growth:
When an organization becomes financially successful and the revenue stream demands reinvesting profits, avoid spending that money, as many do, on barriers and obstacles to relationships. Resist too many private offices and too much modular furniture. Resist eliminating the common workspace that often allowed or encouraged people to gather and tell stories about their work.
Resist creating isolation and instead create opportunities for people to come together to get their work done. Put libraries and learning laboratories on the list of must-do expenses. Create common areas for the display of awards and plaques that dramatically illustrate pride in accomplishments.
Down-size Workspace along with the Workforce if Required:
In organizations that reduce the size of the workforce, there is often a tendency to hang onto the space previously occupied by workers who have been let go. Resist the temptation. Instead of two or three people working together in an office, there often ends up being a single worker, working alone - isolated. The innovative and creative attributes that once inhabited a crowded area often creep away unnoticed until it is too late.
Also, during a reduction, organization may try to continue doing everything that was being done previously. More work, for fewer people translates into less time available to tend important relationships. Typically, people loose the interaction that training for new jobs will demand because of constrained time to get the job done. All mistakes that will take a toll at the very time the organization needs a boost in innovation.
Then too there is a tendency to remaining workers to feel the increased stress of potential job loss even though they still have a job and their coworkers have been let go. In an effort to demonstrate value to the organization people will take on tasks that are not necessarily essential to assure they are fully engaged at all times. Often, people under these conditions resist sharing information about their job because of fears associated with loss of job security. Again, this perpetuates a sense of isolation causing a downward spiral in performance and productivity.
Isolation is a very real phenomenon that robs an organization of capacity that might otherwise be directed toward growth potential. Responsible people in organizations often develop a strategy to treat the symptoms without identifying the root cause thereby making the condition worse. Workforce isolation can be diagnosed and corrected. Were it is not an urgent issue, isolation of workers can be prevented through thoughtful planning of space and deliberate activities.
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