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As Long as We Remember...

July 7, 2014

Of Management Theory and Related Musings

Steven R. Berryman

Management theory covers how we control and organize behaviors through the good auspices of coworkers and underlings or constituents; both theory and practice have come under scrutiny as the world devolves around us, and the “new normal” seems like it’s going to stick.


But have we already “heard it all,” and is there nothing yet undiscovered?


Having been steeped in the theory of management courtesy of too much time in retail and wholesale concerns, I have been fortunate to have seen reality vs. the academic component for many moons; once a subordinate printed off a unique text that remains unpublished to this day from Dr. Abraham Maslow: Eupsychian Theory.


[Maslow, of course is one of the three most oft quoted of the behavioral psychology crowd; along with Piaget and Erikson.]


So, while engaged in constructive management in Ithaca, New York, in the mid 90’s as pyramid head for a little department store called Montgomery Ward, my protégé/department head “Ben” chanced a visit to the Net and printed off a full copy of said learned manuscript (not a published book) containing rough thoughts on industrial management observations by Maslow.


Upon reading, my favorite observation was – not because it was so earth-shattering, but because I was one of the only people to be privy to it – the behavior of workers on a factory production floor at the tail assembly of an assembly line:


After the final stage of production, boxes of the finished product were stacked in a staging room in giant quantity, and simply awaited further transport to delivery trucks headed to distribution centers or other outlets. What the items were did not matter.


The experiment was: how did the production rates change according to how much merchandise was stacked up in the holding room?


The finding was both simple, yet fascinating: As the room filled with mounds of boxes to nearly full capacity, the lines slowed down, even when the shipping schedules were unknown (and there had never been a history of “log jams” in the output of the production.)


Conversely, if the mounds of boxes were unstacked and loaded out frequently (presumably to smaller trucks) the line output increased quite a bit, in an effort to build up the total supply of the storage room.


[To oblivious managers, allow me: Keep the results of production under perpetual observation, as workers WANT to perform well, and DO look for signs of how well they are doing.]


The psychology presumably being that either “nature abhors a vacuum,” or that the line workers of the factory held some sort of latent pride in keeping that room full from their toil.


So, what of this seemingly minor finding, documented in such a little known text?


One item for me was that the nuance of human nature is so little understood or quantified. Another is that “everything under the sun” is not known and quantified at this time, despite academia that has not fully considered even modest whims of behaviors.


Conventional wisdom has been to blindly push, admonish, censure, and cajole workers to some acceptable result (based upon a budget or goal, for instance).


According to this researched finding, Maslow learned that leading the workers through visual signals on performance was extremely valuable, indeed. This, potentially had impact beyond carrot and stick approaches.


So, therefore, when there is a palpable way to demonstrate a positive result, we should embrace it, pull instead of push, as a technique toward an end.


Getting people to do something because they think it’s the right thing to do (and even allowing them the courtesy of thinking it’s their own idea) is an essential tool in successful management.


Behavior modification from within – eclipsing the ones forced from without – are clearly worth the effort of subtle management nuance.


Taking the time to alter working conditions and observe outcomes...


Or, are we already self-convinced that there is nothing new under the sun, and all awareness and objectivity are simply an unneeded luxury?


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