The machine society and how to cure it

A rigorous scientific experiment

On the morning of April 21, 2012, I submitted a Google search for the term, productivity. The search engine returned “about 244,000,000 results.” For the term, efficiency, it returned “about 362,000,000 results.”

A search for the term happiness returned “about 56,000,000 results.” A search for the term self-actualization returned “about 1,340,000 results.”

The first two terms yielded a total of 606,000,000 results. The second two terms yielded a total of 57,340,000 results. About 91% of the results pertained to productivity and efficiency, while about 9% pertained to happiness and self-actualization.

Which values are more important in modern society? Clearly, productivity and efficiency are more important than happiness or self-actualization. Have I based this conclusion on my highly scientific and rigorous Googling experiment? No. I already knew the answer before I Googled the terms. My conclusion is based on 58 years of life experience as a card-carrying member of modern society. The Google results were not informative, they were merely unsurprising.

It isn’t necessary to conduct a scientific experiment or an academic study to know that we are preoccupied with productivity and efficiency. Management training, process improvement methods, organizational models, and the like all focus predominantly on those two values.

The question, then, is “So what?”

To explore that question, let’s examine the basic definitions of the four terms.

Productivity

As of the same date as the Googling exercise, the Wikipedia entry for Productivity begins:

Productivity is a measure of the efficiency of production. Productivity is a ratio of production output to what is required to produce it (inputs). The measure of productivity is defined as a total output per one unit of a total input.

The basic definition of productivity says nothing about value, about matching supply with demand, or any such details. It’s strictly about generating more and more and more and more output.

Efficiency

The Wikipedia entry for Efficiency begins:

Efficiency in general describes the extent to which time or effort is well used for the intended task or purpose. It is often used with the specific purpose of relaying the capability of a specific application of effort to produce a specific outcome effectively with a minimum amount or quantity of waste, expense, or unnecessary effort.

Self-actualization

In an article in Psychological Review in 1943 entitled “A Theory of Human Motivation,” Abraham Maslow postulated a hierarchy of human needs starting with the most fundamental, such as oxygen, water, and food, and building up to higher-order needs that culminate with self-actualization. When physical needs are satisfied, one then focuses on personal safety. Once personal safety is handled, one seeks a sense of belonging and acceptance. Building on that, one needs self-esteem. When all those needs are satisfied, one can reach for self-actualization. Maslow described self-actualization this way:

What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualization… It refers to the desire for self-fulfillment, namely, to the tendency for him to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.

I will trust the reader to rise above contemporary notions of political correctness and understand Maslow’s use of the words “man” and “he” in historical context.

Happiness

Happiness, or maybe more to the point, positivity has been recognized by researchers in the fields of neuroscience and psychology to be fundamental to mental and emotional well-being, and even to physical health. This page on Psychology Today’s website offers several links to more information on the subject: http://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/happiness. Short of reading very dense research reports, you can learn more from sources such as the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center, PositivePsychology.net, the Journal of Positive Psychology, or the Positive Psychology section of Mental Health News.

Positive psychology — happiness, if you will — is directly connected not only with satisfaction and fulfillment in life, but with effective performance on the job. One’s career can be one of the most important paths toward self-actualization. It is, at least, one of the most accessible paths, in view of the relative amount of time we spend at work. If happiness is indeed a fundamental human need, then it follows we have to satisfy this need before we can hope to attain higher-order needs such as self-actualization. From that, it follows that if a commercial enterprise wants to maximize its effectiveness in the marketplace, a simple and powerful way to do so is to ensure employees are happy; I mean “happy” in the deeper sense of the word, not just that people are smiling and giggling.

Implications for business success

It is reasonable to surmise that to achieve business success an enterprise should provide an environment that enables its employees to move toward self-actualization in the course of performing their work. You remember Jeffrey Liker’s book, The Toyota Way. It’s one of those books that every manager buys when it’s hot because they’re expected to buy the hottest management books, and then puts it on their shelf so that people visiting their offices will think they’re up on all the hottest management trends. Well, it turns out, according to Takahiro Fujimoto in The Evolution of a Manufacturing System at Toyota, that the people who developed “The Toyota Way” didn’t call it by that name, nor by the name “Lean Thinking.” They called it The Respect for Humanity System or The Thinking Way. In running the company, they didn’t focus primarily on productivity or efficiency. They focused primarily on understanding how humans function (usually called “respect for people”) and on fostering a culture of continuous improvement (usually called “a culture of continuous improvement”). Mechanical aspects of operations, such as productivity and efficiency, then followed naturally from those first principles.

The machine society

It’s funny that when people try to implement methods or approaches that emphasize these values, they seem to adopt the mechanical aspects without embracing (or even comprehending) the fundamental principles. People talk about “lean” as if it were only about “eliminating waste.” People talk about “agile” as if it were only about “going faster.” People implement methods like Kaizen, TQM, Lean Six Sigma, Agile, Scrum, Kanban, and others by performing specific practices described in the literature in a rote way, ignoring the underlying principles, and locking in a set of practices permanently without any thought to continuous improvement. Their focus remains on productivity and efficiency. All they are able to glean from different approaches and different methods are new buzzwords with which to re-label their old habits of mind, so that people visiting their offices will think they’re up on all the hottest management trends.

I mentioned in a piece entitled Utilization thinking vs. throughput thinking that humans came to be treated as “resources” as a consequence of the rise of Taylorism in the early 20th century. Taylorism itself was a consequence of the basic values of the society wherein it arose. The sort of entity that would consider productivity — the mindless, directionless, purposeless generation of as much output as possible, without context or any consideration of demand — is a machine. A human would not behave in that way. If efficiency fosters higher productivity, then efficiency, too, must be a machine value and not a human one. Ultimately, productivity for its own sake can only result in two outcomes: (a) a planet-sized garbage dump filled with products nobody wants, all its resources depleted; and (b) a demoralized population with no reason to live. If productivity and efficiency are the fundamental values of our society, then our society is nothing more than a machine. We exist to serve the machine. We have no other function.

If we had a society based on human values, such as happiness and self-actualization, then the machine would exist to serve us. If we had a society based on human values, then people would not have so much difficulty understanding concepts like respect for people and continuous improvement. Such values would be so obvious and so natural that they would require no labels and no explanation; no training classes, consultants, coaches, books, university degree programs, or clinical studies. It would simply be normal for us to be human.

The main character in Eliyahu Goldratt’s business novel, The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement, factory manager Alex Rogo has to find a way to get his operation functioning profitably or he will be out of a job. Guided by his mentor Jonah, Alex makes a series of discoveries that help him understand how to accomplish that goal. The book has become required reading for every manager. Yet, most people understand the message of the book in terms of the rote application of lean manufacturing methods to improve the operation of the factory. In human terms, Alex’s journey is one of self-actualization. He is personally invested in the challenge of improving the factory, and by pursuing the goal he improves himself. When people are raised from birth to become machine parts when they grow up, it is very difficult for them to perceive this. They have been conditioned to shy away from anything smacking of soft, squishy “human” factors.

The cure

In an exchange on Twitter earlier this month, we were discussing how to encourage people to adopt more-effective software development practices. I suggested that if people are happy with the results they’re obtaining, then there’s nothing to “fix.” Let them be happy, even if we think they might possibly be able to improve their efficiency by changing some of their methods. One response got me thinking about this subject again: “Goal is be happy? I thought the goal was deliver value early and often. Emotional state may be one factor, but not the goal!”

That gets right to the heart of the point I’d like to make in this post. The goal “deliver early and often” is a machine’s goal. The goal “be happy” is a human goal. In that Twitter exchange, I replied “Deliver value early and often is a mechanical goal. Being happy is a human goal. Many are happy to deliver value early and often,” and “Happy person is engaged, invested, proactive.”

There’s danger in focusing on “deliver early and often” without considering context. I’ve coached more than one team to the point that they were operating at a level of efficiency the rest of their organization could not match. (Don’t worry, I know better now.) Just as the planet that turns itself into a massive garbage dump dies as a result of its high productivity, these teams did not last long. Things happen in context. People, teams, and organizations are systems, in the sense the word is used in Systems Thinking. That is, their defining properties emerge from the interaction of their parts. When one team operates in a way that is out of sync with the larger system of which it is a part (the organization), the result cannot be positive.

The simplest (that is, lowest-stress) way to avoid this sort of outcome is to focus on human values rather than machine values, and let factors such as productivity and efficiency emerge naturally through the dynamic interaction of the organization’s parts. Foster a culture of continuous improvement, not with the direct goal of improving productivity, but rather with the direct goal of enabling employee self-actualization. In the natural course of their journey of self-actualization in the context of their own career growth, they will improve the organization’s operation. All you have to do is stand aside and watch it happen.

7 thoughts on “The machine society and how to cure it

  1. Phew. Long post. Almost Tl;Dr.

    Been saying this for years, of course. So well in agreement. And your point is at the heart of Rightshifting, too (I guess you know that already).

    Two quibbles with terms; use of “happiness” when eg Seligman has given that up in favour of “well-being” and/or “flourishing”; and the omission of the term “effective” – which in my book encompasses the well-being of all concerned.

    – Bob

    1. “Deliver value early and often is a mechanical goal”. Actually, I would sugest, it’s an intermediate goal, on the way to a larger goal, namely “customer delight”. Even delighting the customer is an intermediate goal in that when the business was started a problem that needed to be solved was identified and someone (company founders?) set out to solve it.

      If you joined the company then you’re either signing on with the vision of solving that problem, or meeting some of the lower level needs in Maslow’s hierarchy like earning a living. Ideally you’re doing both and are happily earning a living.

      1. Do you think the company’s mission (the problem the founders set out to solve) is the ultimate goal, or is it, too, an intermediate goal? When you “sign on” to help the company achieve its goals, aren’t you aligning the two sets of goals – yours and theirs? Isn’t that exactly what the company’s founders did when they formed the company? As long as there is mutual benefit, it is a partnership. The moment you subordinate your life goals to your employer’s company goals, you become a machine part.

  2. Hi Bob, thanks for your comments. Funny to complain about tl;dr and yet take the time to press the shift key twice, to type Tl;Dr.

    Conciseness has never been my strong suit. On the other hand, I’m not sure that every idea has to be presented in an ADD-style rapid-fire burst of sparks. Sometimes it might be worth the time to r something that is a bit l. Of course, as always: imho and ymmv.

    I did use the term effective in a paragraph about happiness. I’m pleased to let Seligman use his brain, and I’ll use mine. I haven’t given up on happiness just yet.

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