Factory-Think

In my most recent post, I wrote about how organizations cannot be expected to behave humanely, any more than we would expect a refrigerator or chain saw to behave humanely. Organizations are not humans. However, humane leaders can steer their organizations in humane directions, but only if they can avoid getting caught up in Organization-Think. 

Now let’s take it up a notch. Let’s look at meta-organizations, collections of organizations whose leaders and workers share a mental model, largely unconscious, that limits humane behavior. 

Let’s call it “Factory-Think.”

Imagine that you were a factory owner at the dawn of the Industrial Age.  Your problem: How to create an efficient, cost-effective, profitable way to produce goods. The solution? Piece work. Workers got paid by how many widgets they made in a day or week. To maximize productivity, and to ensure that every widget was like every other widget, steps and processes were created by which, say, a shirt, was put together. Every worker used the same steps – two hundred people all doing the same things every hour of every day. A similar model evolved to create assembly lines for products that were too complicated for one person to produce entirely. Cars, for example. Workers got paid by the hour, but as with piece work, did the same repetitive task over and over. One brake installer’s product couldn’t be differentiated from another’s. 

In Factory-Think, craftsmen were largely relegated to the trash heap of history. They were too slow, too limited in how many widgets they could produce, and too expensive. Mass production was what succeeded!

What might it be like to be a factory worker? What is it like to have to do the same thing over and over and over again for years? What is it like for your work to be identical to the work of the person next to you? What was it like when factory owners considered workers identical replaceable parts? Henry Ford said: “All I want is a pair of hands and I have to take the whole damn person.” Basically, people become widgets themselves. Step one in reducing humanness.

Factory-Think has been highly successful in many ways. It’s made lots of money for those at the top of the heap. And the system has been able to produce lots of goods for a rapidly growing population. As Factory-Think blossomed, a middle class emerged, raising the standard of living for a growing percentage of the population. Pretty good, right?

But what happens when a mental model, a way of thinking, works? We widen its application. If it works for X, let’s use it for Y. Turns out, widening the use of Factory-Think can be a very bad idea when applied to human services. Let’s look at three examples, and then consider implications for the future of executive coaching.

Education: Say you’re a municipality. You have a whole bunch of kids to educate. How do you do it? Factories provide a model. You set up systems and processes that can be combined into a big organization (a school system) with lots of sub-organizations, called schools. That big organization organizes teachers and students in much the same way as factories organize workers and widgets. There are processes put in place. Standards to be met. (Actually, so far so good.) One fourth grade teacher is expected to produce the same outcomes as other fourth grade teachers. Many states have mandated tests of students to ensure that teachers are achieving the expected results. (This sometimes results in teaching to the test.) 

Now imagine Factory-Think applied not just to a municipality but to a state, and to each of the other states. That is the state of education today, our national way of thinking about educating children.

The problem? Children are not shirts or cars. They are individuals, with the messy variability that characterizes people, not mass produced goods. Woe be to the child who doesn’t match up to expectations, who can’t learn the “right” way, the way “everybody else” does, i.e., the way the system is designed to teach. Those children are seen as problems, not opportunities for creative solutions. Relegated to “Special Ed,” these children may not feel very special. The term “Special Ed” doesn’t fool anyone. 

Sure, there are Individual Education Plans for “Special Ed” kids that can suggest a break from Factory- Think. But why doesn’t every child have an IEP? Even though every child learns in his or her own way, in the name of efficiency, most children are relegated to the method that can crank out at least average results for the greatest number. Many educators today are searching for a new model.

Psychotherapy: As a practicing psychotherapist from the early 1970s through most of the 1990s, I was witness to, and, for a short time, victim of, the mechanization of psychotherapy. Mechanization came to psychotherapy in the form of psychiatric diagnoses and managed care formulas for treating various “conditions.” In truth, actual people don’t fit well into psychiatric diagnoses, nor do they respond uniformly to formulaic therapy processes. Research finds statistically average improvement, but averages can hide a lot of variability.

At its best, therapy is a process that helps people become human, increasingly able to solve complex problems of living by learning and using improved emotional, cognitive, and behavioral skills. At its worst, it becomes prescribed, trying to fit humans into pre-determined processes. The potential value of psychotherapy becomes diminished. 

With psychotherapy, insurance companies take the place of factory owners, because they, like factory owners, are the ones with the money, or so most therapists have been socialized to think. Therapy is concluded not when the patient’s issues have been resolved, but when the insurance money runs out. 

Healthcare: My doctor wanted me to get a specific kind of x-ray. But the protocol of her large hospital system required that I get an unneeded but expensive test first. There was no room for individual judgment on her part. This highly educated, highly intelligent person became a widget in the system. 

Those of you who have had any experience with serious health issues, either your own or those of a loved one whom you shepherded through an awful illness, have probably heard, “Well, that’s the way we do things.” People who have needs that make them different from the mythical average patient are seen as problems, which creates resentment among providers. Those patients interfere with success, which is too often gauged not by the number of people cured, but by the number of people herded through the system in the shortest time possible. To be clear, doctors, nurses, and other humans who work in the system care very much about patients and cures. But if they don’t follow Factory-Think, they don’t work there very long.

Again, having standards and protocols that meet the needs of most people (the big hump of whatever bell curve is relevant) can have value. But humans are messy, and individual judgment is essential. That’s what professional education is for, creating the capacity for judgment. Meta-organizations create cultures that discourage judgment. Solving the mess that is our current healthcare system will depend a great deal on changing from Factory-Think.

The Future of Coaching: We have begun to see coaching companies that have formulas for coaching. You meet with your coach X number of times for Y minutes. Your coach uses a set of procedures that the coaching company claims define good coaching. (Of course their definition of good coaching might be suspect.) By running a bunch of people through this system, the coaching company, particularly its leaders, makes a lot of money. The organizations that hire these coaching companies save a lot of money. Up front. On the back end, they may lose a lot of money. They might get 2X improvement from Factory-Think, when they could have had 10X improvement with a more comprehensive mental model. Further, while some clients are probably helped, those who don’t fit the system are left saying, “I tried coaching. It doesn’t work.” 

Factory-Think isn’t a panacea for coaching any more than it is for education, therapy, or healthcare. But market forces will try to put coaching into a box. History will seek to repeat itself. Please resist.

What is our job? There are lots of answers, but one that coaches might all agree on is that we get paid to help people and companies be successful. We get paid to work with people who must solve novel problems every day, by using good judgement and creative thinking. Our clients have to work with multiple factors, many of which can’t even be known. Factory Think won’t work for them, it won’t work for their companies, and it won’t work for their coaches.

Be a crafts-person-coach. That’s easier if you are on your own. But even if you work for a coaching/consulting company that likes to operate on a common philosophy and shared values, make room for your ideas, your judgment, your creativity, your way of relating.

I do offer my EQ Leader Program manual for sale. But, if you buy it, you will read, over and over, my request that you not do the program just as I have outlined it. Rather, it is intended to be a set of resources, a set of ideas, that must be fitted to your personality and to the unique needs of the clients and organizations you serve. Hopefully you would find some things you hadn’t thought of, and I know that you will think of things that I haven’t thought of. That is one of the benefits of our being “messy” human beings.

While Factory-Think has a lot of advantages and is very efficient, it can’t solve every need. Pure craftsmanship yields fantastic products, but is slow and expensive. In Calculus there is something called an optimization problem, where you try to figure out how to adjust variables to get the best possible outcome. With some human judgment, can we apply that idea here?

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