The Factory

Imagine you work in a factory. You’re lucky to work there because it has a high standard of excellence. The foreman is a really decent guy. He went to a school that taught him the fundamentals of the manufacturing process. He learned about the product that the team produces. He took classes on cutting-edge techniques for managing human capital. He knows how to motivate people (a combination of enthusiastic communication and “casting a vision”). He knows how to boost morale (lots of praise and pats on the back!) and how to get people to work together. He’s passionate about producing excellent products for the customers. He keeps a list of all the employees’ birthdays and sends each one a note on their special day. In short, he’s perfect!

About 25% of the employees adore the manager. He makes their life so easy! All they have to do is show up to work and do as they’re told. They’re certain that it simply isn’t possible to improve the process. They’re super-enthusiastic. They show up to work, do their job cheerfully, and are perfectly content with the program. They love it so much that they become indignant whenever someone suggests that there might be a better way to do things. They view employees who are unhappy with the corporation as troublemakers. Such people are typically ignored. (They would never use the word shunned.) The unhappy ones are viewed as extraneous—not very useful to the company. Sometimes, if the troublemakers are particularly vocal, the enthusiastic ones work in unison to make the troublemakers feel so unwelcome that they get them to quit their jobs and seek employment elsewhere.

*  *  *

Lucky for you, the company is very committed to employee training. In fact, you’re likely to spend as much time attending training classes as you are working on the assembly line. The manager gives everyone frequent motivational pep talks, so you can be sure that your morale will remain high. He tells everyone that if they work hard at their training, they’ll eventually be given an important job—not on the assembly line but on the company staff! If you’re consistently good, then maybe one day you can even get a job in management! On rare occasions, he’s forced to chide people for their lack of enthusiasm. After all, an occasional dose of guilt goes a long way.

About 70% of the employees are bored. They sit listlessly in the training classes. They are encouraged to interact with each other, because that is considered an important aspect of team building, so interact they do—during their 30-minute lunch break. They are also sometimes encouraged to exchange high-fives during the training; and whenever someone has a birthday, the manager makes sure to announce it so everyone knows to clap for them.

They sigh as they listen to yet another “pep talk” from the manager, but they are pretty sure that every other factory works the same way. No point in seeking employment elsewhere. The job feels empty, meaningless. Yet everyone needs to have a job. Right? Might as well pass the time here. Besides, at least they have a manager who isn’t mean-spirited and exploitive like the manager of the mega-factory across town. 

Occasionally someone will complain that the training is shallow and inane, the job is menial and not at all challenging, and the product they’re producing isn’t really all that great. Invariably, one of the enthusiastic workers challenges them: “why don’t you do something to make it better, then?”

Well, of course, they’ve tried. Whenever their input has been solicited, they’ve dutifully filled out their comment card. Those who have dared to bring up problems to the manager are received politely. (After all, he has an open door policy.) He patiently lets them talk through their concerns, then proceeds to educate them on why the system is structured the way it is. He appreciates their concern. That’s what is really important. If they could just get on board with the program a bit more, then they’d see how wonderful it really is. “After all, there’s no such thing as a perfect factory!”

The remaining 5% of the employees chafe at the program. They hate the industrial-era attitudes and processes. They don’t like how their questions about some of the archaic manufacturing processes are immediately dismissed. They hate the absurd “training” classes, which are really nothing more than indoctrination sessions, with a little bit of inspirational “go-get-em!” thrown in. They hate the program. They often wonder why nobody else seems to care that creativity and critical thought are suppressed.

Some speak up once too often and are summarily fired. Some quit, become resentful, and spend their lives harshly criticizing all factory workers.

Recently, a handful of the “5%ers” quietly gave their two-week notice, left the factory, and formed a new team that collaborates to serve their customers in a more organic way. They banded together as a group of enthusiastic souls who have a shared passion for finding better ways to serve their customers. This group encourages creative problem solving. They even attract disgruntled, marginalized workers who left (or were invited to leave) other factories and give them an environment that allows them to flourish. Ideas from all team members are encouraged. Of course, not all the ideas are good, but healthy discourse strengthens the team. Each individual is invited to contribute to the enterprise in the way that he or she is either most gifted or perhaps just feels most comfortable.

The workers enjoy hanging out with each other, and when one has a problem, the rest band together to help them. It’s sometimes messy, and some of the challenges they face are not insignificant. But together, the group has found a life of joy and purpose. They very much prefer the challenges of sharing life over the stultifying program they used to endure.

In the factory, the workers either sit quietly in the training room with their backs to each other or stand at their place in the assembly line doing rote tasks. The manager is generally the only one who speaks. Sometimes, he calls on someone to voice his opinion, but the context of the question leaves little room for free expression. The leading question usually invites an answer that corroborates the manager’s opinion.

When the new startup group holds meetings, they sometimes meet in a bar or coffee shop or conference room. They sit around a table, and all team members contribute to the discussion. They choose dialogue over monologue, and dissenting opinions are encouraged. The discussions result in stronger relationships among the team members, and they typically leave the room with a renewed enthusiasm for the work, because they value serving the customer over personal agendas. They’ve found a way to live and thrive.

It’s a shame they weren’t taught that this was an option when they were young, but I guess the factories frown on that sort of thing because they don’t want to go out of business.

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