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Tragic Yearning

You can’t fix a broken process until you understand the motivations of the people performing the process. Business Reporter's resident U.S. 'blogger Keil Hubert explores why leaders should avoid simply throwing money, bodies, and technology at underperforming business units and instead concentrate on fixing the human issues first.

Everybody yearns for something better, especially at work. Undervalued workers yearn for recognition. Overburdened workers yearn for relief. Confused workers yearn for clarity. Overwhelmed supervisors yearn for faithful service. It’s the same story every day in every workplace: people yearn for what they deserve and require but (for whatever reason) do not or can not have.

This is a leader’s job to fix. That is, identifying, understanding, and addressing those un-met meets in his or her organisation. Every workgroup has a mission to perform that the larger business depends on; failure to achieve its objectives makes a workgroup non-viable, and subject to replacement or censure. That’s why leaders almost always focus – rightly – on solving those problems that prevent their workgroup(s) from delivering on their core mission. Unfortunately, many leaders – especially the inexperienced ones – over-focus on the outputs of a group’s dysfunctional processes rather than its underlying causes. They treat symptoms while allowing the disease to progress unchecked.

In business, this facile approach almost always manifests the same way: managers throw money at technology, hoping that faster or better tools will improve the delivery of a poorly-performed process up to acceptable levels. That method is easier and cleaner than addressing the underlying complex factors. That is to say, the dysfunctional human elements that undermine the business process. Saturate the problem with spending (it’s said), and the problem will eventually solve itself.

The higher up the management chain you go, the more ‘leadership’ devolves into little more than random chance and fervent prayer.

As an example: I spent a brief stint as the chief administrator of a medical unit before I retired from the US military. The organisation had been ineffective for years, and had earned a terrible reputation for inefficiency, missed deadlines, and awful customer service. I’d started my military career in Army medical service, and had amassed over ten years of command experience after I transferred to the Air Force, so I was the appropriate ‘change agent’ to help these folks get things back on track.

I approached the challenge the way that an industrial anthropologist would. I watched. I interviewed all of the key leaders involved in the group’s core business practices, then I observed their people actually perform those processes. I noted the discrepancies between what was supposed to happen and what actually happened. That gave me a sort of ‘gap analysis’ which helped narrow my focus. After going through all of the unit’s doctrine and performance standards, I interviewed the top physician, the chief nurse, the top NCO, and the unit commander to try and understand why they each thought that their people were under-performing.

For context, the group’s primary function was to perform physical exams on a larger unit of drilling reservists on the fourth Saturday of each month. They were required to test a large range of physical elements (e.g., eyesight, blood pressure, etc.) and address a large number of medical requirements (e.g., immunizations, drug screenings, etc.). The entire process should’ve taken about a half a day for each customer – sometimes all day. Having those workers sequestered conflicted with other training, which meant that the commanders they served were constantly frustrated.

Since the unit served about 1,200 people, that meant that at or about 100 people had to be seen each month. Thanks to no-shows and competing events, that number was usually closer to 120 each month. In order to get that many people processed correctly, every activity needed to run at peak efficiency. If any one station slowed, the entire exam process ground to a halt – and people got mad.

The way some furious commanders described the medical group’s continual cavalcade of errors, you’d think that this loopy stock photo was an actual, sober portrait of our medics in action. The reality was … a lot less hyperbolic.

Hypothetically, the medical group more resources than it needed. The national standard was three full-time administrators to act as a ‘buffer’ during the regular work week. These three got everything prepared for the 45+ part-time employees who showed up one weekend per month. This outfit actually had eight full-time staff (nearly triple its authorised resources) yet still couldn’t manage to complete its required core clinical functions each month. I wanted to know why. Specifically, I wanted to attack the root causes of the group’s dysfunction, not waste time on surface repairs.

One of the major problems that I identified was a large-scale, pervasive, and unspoken dependency issue. I discovered that the group’s two full-time healthcare schedulers were overloaded doing paperwork during the month and could only just keep up with weekend requirements. In order for everything to function correctly, the schedulers needed to prepare everything for the part-time crew first thing on Saturday and then get back to their regular jobs. That last part was crucial; if the schedulers didn’t immediately race back to their office to address other bureaucratic functions, the lack of paperwork processing introduced a long-term bottleneck that then impacted the next month’s processing. Worse, this bottleneck compounded over time. Each new delay created two more later.

Instead of following protocol first thing on Saturday and getting back to work, the schedulers were frequently pressed into service in the clinic handling most (sometimes all!) of the data entry, tech support, and customer service work on behalf of the twenty part-time workers who were supposed to perform those functions. I observed many instances of part-time workers refusing to work their tasks, claiming that they ‘didn’t know how to,’ or that they ‘didn’t have access rights,’ or that ‘their equipment didn’t work.’ These excuses and corresponding lack of cooperation infuriated the schedulers because refusals to work meant that they were required to do the part-timers’ labour … thereby allowing the part-time workers to go goof off. Some honestly tried. A few sulked and complained to their supervisors that they weren’t being allowed to contribute to the group’s success.

I listened to the differing perspectives, and worked out that they were each only partially correct. Yes, there had been gaps in qualification, problems with access, and misbehaving technical kit … but those problems had already been addressed – more than once. After a little background research, it became clear that the chief nurse didn’t know how to lead. She’d been an individual contributor her entire career, and had grossly overstated her qualifications as a supervisor. She didn’t know how to mentor, train, or motivate people, and it showed. Morale and efficiency in her section were abysmal.

The majority of the healthcare techs had joined up in order to help people in need. They were rightfully frustrated at having their time wasted every month AND being branded as maliciously incompetent by their peers in other units. 

Rather than admit that she was out of her depth and request help growing into the role, the chief nurse worked out that it was simpler to make the two full-time schedulers do all of the difficult work for everyone else than it was to actively train, equip, and supervise the rest of her staff. When pressed as to why her team kept missing deadlines and failing to meet standards, the chief nurse angrily blamed everything and everyone else. Her PCs didn’t work. The mainframe crashed. Patients showed up late. Most often, though, the ‘problem’ she identified was that the full-time schedulers ‘weren’t competent enough to properly prepare for the weekend.’ I suspect that she knew that she was completely dependent on the two of them, and she detested them for it.

I’d been supporting the medical unit as the head of IT for ten years, so I was confident that the chief nurse’s excuses were crap. Buying more computers or delivering remedial process training wasn’t going to solve the core problem. The chief nurse refused to take any corrective action to address her own lack of leadership skills. The only way to break the cycle of compounding failures was to change the organisational dynamic to isolate and neutralize the human factor. So, we did.

With the commander’s blessing, we transferred the two full-time schedulers out from under the chief nurse. We reclassified their weekend role as ‘expediters’ rather than ‘schedulers;’ their revised function was to prepare everything prior to Saturday, and thereafter only provide support to the new clinical supervisor. We empowered the group’s senior NCO to control every aspect of clinical operations … including all of the people. Her expediters – and they were hers exclusively – would set things up and then vamoose. If her staff members didn’t perform, then they were her responsibility to correct. If the chief nurse or her members didn’t perform, in turn, then it’d be clear where the breakdown had occurred … and the unit commander could correct things before the day was done.

Sure enough, efficiency improved quickly. Empowering a motivated supervisor to control the operation helped, but the real ‘fix’ came from dividing the functions up such that non-personnel issues could be factored out of consideration. The head NCO’s people had accurate records, computer access, schedules, space … everything that they needed. When the chief nurse complained about factors that were already sorted, she was rebuked and ordered to do her job.

The improvements we made in the overall process led to improved unit morale. The reduction in forced dependency improved the attitude of the two schedulers, and also of the part-time health techs who had felt underutilized, bored, and unwanted. Most importantly, identifying the root cause of the related inefficiencies compelled upper management to take lasting corrective action.

'I like you, Miss Smith, but you either have to get your #£&% together or else find a new job. We have professional standards, and you’re not meeting them.'

All of this was made possible by a close examination of the different yearnings expressed by team members. The schedulers yearned for relief from unfair overwork. The ambitious part-time techs yearned for an opportunity to meaningfully contribute. The distracted physicians yearned for someone to clear up the confusion that delayed their exams. As for the chief nurse, she yearned for someone else to handle all of the hard leadership work for her so that she didn’t have to. Once those desires were understood, the solution to the larger problem became obvious.

There are two reasons why I keep hammering the idea of ‘yearning’ in this story. First, it’s because human motivations almost always have more influence on process inefficiencies than technology does. Tools that aren’t used aren’t bad tools, so replacing or upgrading them won’t solve anything. Second, it’s because of a Japanese drama that reflects elements of this dysfunctional clinic story.

In 1964, Mikio Naruse wrote and directed a tragic story called Yearning that centred on a widow fifteen years after the end of World War II. The protagonist had only been married for six months before her husband was slain late in the war. She’d carried on running her husband’s business out of a sense of duty to her husband’s family rather than re-marry or otherwise pursue her own happiness. As larger grocers start to drive her store out of business, the audience sees that her abusive relatives had always been cruel to her. Her loyalty to her lost husband’s dreams proves to have been futile. As the story unfolds, she realizes that she’s squandered the prime of her life out of a misplaced sense of duty. Worst of all, she comes to understand that the people closest to her – who should have been supporting her all along – were, in fact, the cause of her misery. When offered a chance to change her fate, she declines … possibly because she’s afraid of change. [1]

In many ways, the dysfunctional clinic story mirrors Yearning: the tragic cast of this organisational drama had caused their own misery unnecessarily. When I’d been the head of IT, I’d funnelled thousands of dollars of equipment, services, and training into the medical group in order to help them solve their efficiency problems. We’d eliminated all of their major obstacles that weren’t rooted in motivation. Once I got close enough to assess the workers’ attitudes and desires, it became clear that the group could have solved their inefficiency problems years earlier by simply isolating, clarifying, and correcting the root cause of their continual failures: one crucial section leader had been (deliberately or unconsciously) sabotaging the operation all along.

Some people are so terrified of appearing inadequate that they’d rather rush headlong into certain disaster than admit that they’re not up to a task.

I advise every leader – especially every tech sector leader – to take this lesson to heart. You can’t solve people-based problems with kit. It doesn’t work that way. For every failing process, you have to look first to the people performing the process in order to learn where and why the process isn’t working as desired. This requires close engagement, accountability, and difficult confrontation.

I understand why leaders are loathe to do this; interpersonal affairs are often messy, complicated, and unsettling. It’s so much easier to keep people at arm’s length and throw money at their problems in the hopes that those problems will somehow resolve themselves. Unfortunately, real life is frequently saturated with drama. Leaders have to understand who their people are and how they got to where they are before they can start to untangle messy, behaviour-based issues.

Finally, take to heart that drama in the workplace often resembles drama in cinema, in that the resolution of a group’s problems doesn’t necessarily lead to all of the characters going away happy and fulfilled. Sometimes, characters are too wrapped up in their own tragic situations to respond rationally to rehabilitation. Like war-widow Reiko Morita in Yearning, the unit’s chief nurse was given an honest chance to escape her fate and find happiness … and she refused it. She declined … probably because she was afraid of change, possibly out of spite. It was never clear. Unfortunately, her bitterness and obstinacy drove her to increasingly-worse professional decisions that eventually required her permanent departure.

Not all dramas have happy endings.

[1] Spoilers: the story only gets more depressing from there.

Title Allusion: Zenzô Matsuyama (writer) and Mikio Naruse (writer and director), Midareru (US title: Yearning) (1964 Film)

Photos under licence from thinkstockphotos.co.uk copyright: crying woman - za5450; chips - g-stockstudio;  angry nurse - Darko1original; depressed doctor - liza5450; comforting doctor - KatarzynaBialasiewicz; upside-down car - roberthyrons

POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featuredKeil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).

Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.

  • Garrett

    Great article. Spot on eval of many of today’s workforce issues. It would be a much better working environment across this great nation if every boss or supervisor would understand this concept.