The Road to Hell: Organizational dysfunction and how good intentions got us all into this mess

Richard Eaton

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, 12th C

As a founding partner and lead consultant for Berlineaton, a 22 years successful management consulting firm based in Victoria BC, I lead the Continuous Improvement practice. We partner with visionary leaders working hard to streamline and simplify critically important, but astonishingly frustrating, business processes for people. It appears that, while many of the hundreds of projects we’ve helped deliver have been launched to address some kind of dysfunction within our clients’ organizations, most of these dysfunctions have been ‘hard wired’ in. I mean, no one goes out of their way to intentionally build frustrating, disconnected, overly complex ways of doing things yet, despite decades of education, training and experience, and millions of dollars invested in information technology, we still seem to get it wrong.

Why is that?

 I’d argue that it’s not because people are dumb or disinterested although, sadly, the tendency of some is to blame individuals or work units for their frustrations. I’ve found that many organizations operating in the information age of the 21st Century are, unconsciously, still operating in a fashion that would be recognized by anyone who is familiar with Charles Dickens; or Dilbert. Therefore, before embarking on any kind of improvement project, it’s important to understand, and appreciate, where people are starting from with respect to this unconscious organizational baggage which, in most cases was packed with the best of intentions, centuries ago.

 Here are some things we’ve discovered about how the good intentions of many advanced industrial age thinkers have created many of the iron hard cultural paradigms present in many modern organizations, and few ideas about how to fix that.

 How we got into this mess

 Once upon a time, there was the Industrial Revolution. A tectonic shift from farm to factory took place in 18th Century Europe, dwarfing in scope any similar shifts in the present day ‘First World’ countries. Millions of unskilled workers, more or less fresh from the country, poured into urban based factories. Concurrently, this shift created a dependence on cheap manufactured goods that wasn’t present before, when people obtained goods and services through mutually beneficial cottage industries located, for millennia, in village based communities. Exponential industrial expansion in line with nation (and colony) building efforts added even more pressure to the industrial base. Adam Smith, the first Economist, realized the potential for destructive urban, and even international, unrest should demand continue to outstrip supply. His solution? Meet the huge demand for the basics of life and business by producing lots of cheap stuff, fast. The result? Once people, and nations, had enough of the basics, an ‘invisible hand’, guided by natural laws of commerce, would ensure stability and equality for everyone. Whether Smith’s invisible hand worked or not is up for debate. What is clear though is that one key innovation he wrote about in his seminal work, The Wealth of Nations, worked so well that we see it in operation in just about every human organization today: the Division of Labour (DoL) Principle.

The DoL Principle is so common in today’s workplaces, and elsewhere, that we hardly even recognize it as special. In 18th century Europe, it was a game changing innovation with few modern parallels. Simply put, this principle introduced the concept of breaking up one long string of manufacturing activities into bite sized chunks, and developing specialized roles and responsibilities around those ‘islands’ of specialization. Smith, ever the consultant, used the example of a pin factory to describe the benefits of this approach. Before specializing, they were terribly inefficient, with everyone left pretty much on their own to go through the myriad steps involved in making pins. After dividing up the tasks amongst them, Smith noted that: “Those ten persons could make among them upwards of forty thousand pins a day.” Once applied to the national engines of industry and commerce, this principle helped ensure the emergence of the United Kingdom as the pre-eminent industrial power of the 19th Century, but it came with an organizational price we continue to pay:

It gave us ‘siloes’.

The DoL Principle was so successful that it was implemented throughout just about every aspect of modern life; from cookie recipes to the K-12 (and beyond) educational system. The upside is, I hope, obvious. The not so obvious downside was, in organizations embracing the DoL approach, behaviours and practices sometimes emerged that could, at one extreme, be described as sociopathic. Another unintended legacy was that, as we toiled at our (real or metaphorical) coal faces, it gave us a clear mantra for success:

Production is more important than quality.

So, Adam Smith wanted to save the world, and did too in many ways, but bequeathed upon it a lasting organizational legacy of a silo mentality and an intense focus on production over any other measure of performance. With a few modifications along the way, such as F.W. Taylor’s Scientific Management and Ford’s assembly line in the private sector, complimented by Max Weber’s ‘bureaucracy’ in the public sector, the DoL principle survives and thrives to this day. The problem is that, where customer demands for quality and service excellence increase, or where the pace of change accelerates beyond what is known or controllable, like in the 21st Century, the DoL Principle can become more of a hindrance than a help.

Most of our clients struggle bravely, every single day, to overcome some of its most negative effects on organizational and team performance and, in many ways, our ‘road to hell’ was paved with the DoL Principle. So what’s the solution?

Continuous Improvement.

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