The Tinman Needs a Heart

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

The Tinman Needs a Heart

Even though the term reengineering is not as popular as it once was, the faulty thinking that supported it is still alive.


by Rick Maurer

Reengineering is dangerous. It was when it was first developed, and even with its nods to employee participation, it can still be devastating on morale and productivity.

Reengineering: All the Rage

Reengineering is all the rage. It seems that everybody’s doing it, thinking about doing it, or wishing they were doing it. It appears that every effort to reorganize these days, no matter how mundane or conventional, is dubbed “reengineering.” It is very “in.”

I find business reengineering both exciting and deeply troubling.

Engineers are good at looking at processes and finding a better way. Reengineers look at existing organizational structures and find ways to improve efficiency. High-quality products and services most often require cooperation among many units, and consequently, the old, rigid departmental boundaries and hierarchies must be changed. The reengineers take on that challenge.

Reinventing Boundaries

They find ways to reinvent boundaries. The goal is to organize business around a process or a particular customer focus. The process asks, What do we need?  What is the most efficient way to get it? Management is encouraged to be unfettered by the old structure and to create new organizational forms.

Michael Hammer and James Champy’s Reengineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution (Harper, 1993) has been an important book. While the authors claim rather immodestly that reengineering is as radical a shift in thinking as was Adam Smith’s, the results they report are amazing. One-hundred fold improvements in performance are not uncommon. In later interviews, they seemed amazed at the amount of resistance reengineering generated and at its high failure rate.

You Can’t Reengineer People

Although I applaud the thoroughness with which they and other reengineers challenge existing bureaucratic structures, I am disturbed by their apparent lack of concern for people. Greater efficiency is often accompanied by drastic reductions in staff. Gains in efficiency are often coupled with drastic cuts in staff. One department at Ford downsized from 500 to 125.

Corporate leaders are often so blinded by the light of this new grail that they fail to see the wasteland it hides. People can’t be reengineered. Organizations are more than boxes, charts, and orderly lines linking A to B to C. The zealots fail to mention the human consequence of their grand experiments, and we fail to ask about them.

It is not hard to imagine the impact on those who lose their jobs, and on a society in which millions could be reengineered out of work. It seems that the possibility of massive unemployment in this country might be worthy of at least a little chat.

Consider the Survivors

Consider too, those who are left after the layoffs. Surgical downsizing creates a survivor syndrome. People wonder why they were spared the knife. They silently ask, “Will I be next? If the company cares more about processes than people, then where is their commitment to me?”

I am not against reengineering, but I am opposed to the heartlessness with which it is commonly discussed. It is as if people were simply another factor to be manipulated on a spreadsheet. Unfortunately, moral arguments can’t be demonstrated on Lotus 123. Our new-age efficiency experts can’t hear words not linked to numbers. So allow me to argue on their turf.

In the early part of this century, Frederick Taylor sought to create a workplace of great efficiency, one in which “any blockhead” could do the work. He envisioned a workplace where people who spoke little English could work productively. Keep the job simple. Man as machine, completely interchangeable one with another. People were viewed as a resource — just like materials. The early Ford assembly plants brought Taylor’s vision to life. It worked well. Management truly did seem to be a science — just like engineering.

But today we can’t afford “blockheads.” Organizations need “knowledge workers” – people who think, innovate, search for new answers, and challenge existing assumptions. The reengineers realize this, but they fail to understand what it takes for a knowledge worker to do his or her best. It takes commitment.

Few will offer the full power of their hearts and minds when they know that they are considered completely expendable. Managers have told me that people just don’t seem to be as loyal as they used to be. Well, duh. Commitment is a quid pro quo. You can’t expect it and not give it in return.

There Is Hope

There is hope – but the tinman desperately needs a heart. We must couple the need for efficiency, productivity, and quality with a concern and commitment to people. (Of course, in this age, lifelong employment promises can’t be made, but occasional downsizing during economic hard times is far different than the surgical amputations reengineers love.)

If we look a little more closely, we can find organizations that, in my view, are doing it right. They acknowledge the need to transform the workplace. And they rightly assume that people closest to the work know it best and are in the best position to redesign how the work gets done. From these efforts may come ad hoc and permanent cross-functional teams that unite in common cause around business goals. These efforts can result in new structures as radical in concept as those of the reengineers, but without the attendant human misery.

If you are considering reengineering, I urge you to look beyond the hype and consider involving the people who do the work in the new work design.

© 2005-2009 Rick Maurer. Rick uses his Change without Migraines™ to advise organizations on how to lead change effectively. He is author of many books including Beyond the Wall of Resistance. Recently, he created the Change Management Open Source Project, a free
resource for people interested in change in organizations.