If Less is More, Nothing Must Be Everything

In his book “The New Brain,” Richard Restak describes a study where scientists first taught a monkey how to move a cursor (to get food). Then, they implanted an electrode in such a way that, after some practice, allowed him to move the cursor only by thinking about it! He controlled a cursor on a computer screen by using his mind! (Sorry about all the exclamation points but…WOW…and “who thought of that?”…and “they should probably stop.”)

The strangest thing was that, once the monkey learned how to do this, he would no longer use his hand to move the cursor. Even when they disconnected the electrodes, he still sat there  trying to move it with his mind (presumably, based on brain scans). (If you want to see for yourself, start reading on page 195  of this book.)

As a performance consultant, there were some things of specific interest to me. One was that the monkey seemed to have an innate sense of efficiency. When he had a way to do something with less effort, he refused to go back to a way to achieve the same thing with more effort. (It did hurt his productivity though.)

People do that. Once you know you can do something on a computer, people resist writing things out by hand. Think about how so many of us have shifted our bill paying or shopping from a manual process to a computer process. If you do that enough, the thought of actually getting in your car and driving to the store is something we try “actively” to avoid. And, in business, there is a real push right now to shift more and more of the work from an operation that happens in the physical world to an operation requiring a set of decisions entered into a computer.

  • Part drawings are entered in a computer and just downloaded to the machine for fabrication
  • The process of invoicing and collecting is often not much more than a structured email
  • Companies prefer to throw information out over the web or through elearning rather than assembling people for meetings and training

In a way, this seems like an extension of the way documentation sort of replaces actual work. We had a project once to analyze the capabilities and design performance tests for a number of roles in a manufacturing organization.  There was a role called “Quality Assurance Rep” whose responsibility was to approve manufactured lots of product for shipment. You might think that they checked samples, walked around the production area, etc. but you would be wrong. (There is a Quality Control Rep that does that.)

The QA Rep basically verifies that the documentation is good. They do look at the test results and verify that all the tests were done and that the results showed the products to be within spec. They checked the manufacturing information and verified that key temperatures were logged and that they were within spec. They confirmed every production task was initialed by an operator and that the operator was qualified (that is, that his or her training was up-to-date…they checked that on the computer). But they really don’t know if that lot is good or not. They only know if all the boxes were checked and that everyone wrote down what they were expected to. I am not saying this is wrong but it certainly seems almost like a lot of effort just to make sure the record or evidence of performance is acceptable.

The question here is “where is work headed?” There are still plenty of people who physically do work. Doctors talk to and check out patients. Mechanics fix cars. Carpenters build buildings. But lots of the wealth today is generated by people working with information which draws more people away from actual tangible outputs. Will we get to the point where we expect to just sit at our desk, type, and click?

We like to challenge that tendency when we can. For our projects, we frequently go into the workplace and observe the performance. (On one project, we were at the clients pharmaceutical plant by 5am to observe set up and shift kick-off. When we finished work at 3pm it was mighty strange to go back to the hotel ready for dinner…) But often getting physically active, even if it is just going into a meeting room and writing on some flipcharts or sorting Post-Its(r) or index card really improves the energy level and ideas. And there is that nagging bigger question…if all we do is manipulate pixels all day and, in return, someone sends us a representation of money…is that really creating a more fulfilling work environment or only just a way to expend less energy?

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