Let me start by elaborating the title. This is a real incident that happened at India office of a very reputed global firm. This firm deploys cab service to pick and drop employees and their women security policy states that only males should sit next to the driver of a cab. Females can only sit at backseat. Before the cabs leave the company premises in evening, a company guard ensures this along with several other checklist items. On the day of this incident, a woman sat next to the driver for some reason. This cab reached at the gate and a guard with a checklist form started doing his usual checks and in a routine tone, asked the lady sitting next to driver- “Madam, are you male?”.
This incident brought laughter and provided a good story to everyone sitting in the cab though the poor guard wasn’t amused. This was certainly an interesting incident but it’s not one-off, it’s happening all around us- the processes are set, majority starts following those processes, but very few understand the processes and more importantly understand the “why” of the processes. In this industrialized world, most of us are part of certain process but unaware of the outcome. You wouldn’t find it difficult to meet front line workers of manufacturing companies who are polishing the parts without understanding value of that part in the product; software engineering who are writing programs without understanding how exactly the program will make money for their clients; teachers who are lecturing their class but do not know how the specific lecture will make student a better person or professional. We all are solving pieces and very few are connecting the dots.
We feel comfortable doing what we are told to do
Let’s take one more example again from security agencies in malls. Most of the malls in India have a metal detector at the entrance. All of them also have security guards who check everyone entering the mall. The interesting point is whether the metal detector makes sound or not, security guards will frisk you. If they have to frisk you anyway, what is the use of metal detector? I have asked this question more than once but only received smiles (combined with annoyance) in response from the guards.
We feel comfortable if there is a set way of performing our tasks. We want to grow in our roles by improving the quality/productivity of our allocated tasks. Good security guards frisk more number of people per minute, good programmers write bug free code, good sourcing guys get best deals. Tasks are more unpredictable if we go beyond our assigned roles.
Industry’s reliance on comparative advantage
During industrialization, companies reached their optimum productivity by dividing work into pieces and preparing skill sets specific to those pieces. This worked well in manufacturing driven industries but today, we are in knowledge economy where ideas and information value a lot. Making all our workers empowered to challenge the ideas might not be such a bad thing. Companies are facing complex problems that do not have obvious answers. Hence, empowering individuals to test their beliefs is required.
And hence, the opportunity
Individuals have huge opportunity if they understand “why” of their tasks and map their goals to the final outcome. You would not only do your job more effectively but you would create more opportunities for yourself in the system. On the other hand, if you do not think that your company provides you that environment, think twice about continuing there. After all, you don’t want to be the guard checking a checklist throughout your career.