When Operational Excellence Is Bad Karma

iStock_000018852459SmallA slightly uncomfortable weekend with two family members whose work leaves them on the receiving end of ‘operational excellence’.  I drove home rehearsing again the morality of what I do.

Both have blue-collar jobs in household name organizations (with, I happen to know, substantial Lean and Six Sigma programmes).

One – I have to hide identities here, for obvious reasons – works in transport and logistics.  Over the last three years, his job has been relentlessly analysed and ‘optimised’.  He’s fit – a keen Sunday cyclist – but now he arrives home exhausted.  Every minute of his day is programmed, every capability fully stretched all the time. And there’s continual pressure to do unpaid overtime to get the work done.

That relative at least still has a full-time job. The other, who works in retail, was effectively forced to sign a ‘flexible’ contract, under which working hours are pretty much variable by the employer at will. So he might learn this afternoon that he has been given a four hour lunchtime shift tomorrow, only to be sent home at 12:30 if things are unexpectedly quiet.

I’m sure that the Lean Sigma teams driving these changes are proud of what they’ve achieved. This is operational excellence diligently honed to drive out every scintilla of waste.  There’s absolutely nothing left to squeeze.

I’m not claiming that Lean Sigma in the wrong hands is a tool for oppression (Discuss). But it seems to me that we need consensus on a richer definition of operational excellence, a less clinical framework in which success looks beyond simply the elimination of waste.

Both employers in this case – and these are middle-of-the-road organizations, far from unique – should be worrying about how to reconcile their cost-cutting achievements with their proud boasts about Corporate Social Responsibility.

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