I was told it would take slightly more than an hour.  And it did.  I was in this government office to handle a relatively simple matter.  The place wasn’t crowded; there didn’t appear to be a big backlog.  I spend the great bulk of my time sitting in a chair.  At three different points I interfaced with three different people for a total elapsed time of less than five minutes.  I answered some simple questions, a few more than once.  Why did it take over an hour?  I have no clue and was given no explanation.  But I have my suspicions based on what I observed.

As the wasted minutes slowly wore on, I began to take an interest in what was happening behind the massive counter.  I observed ten employees.  When they moved, it was slow – just about as slow as anyone could move and still be moving.  There was no energy, no hustle.  It was downright gloomy, almost lifeless. I didn’t see a smile.  Few words were spoken.  During my few moments of interaction with three of these people, I was treated as a chore – just a single notch above a nuisance.   No personal dialogue or interface.  Just do this and then back to your seat.

The obvious questions quickly came to mind.  Does anyone manage these people?  Why is everything so pitifully slow – so dead?  Is it always like this?  Do these people have any concept of service?  Is there any motivation or incentives for these lethargic souls? Why does it take ten to run this place?  Why does it take three to process my puny request? Do these people have any fear of losing their jobs?  To them, is it just about logging time at the slowest possible pace to collect a paycheck?

As I pondered these questions, I remembered a great experience that I had in Germany a few years ago.  A friend of mine, a gifted German pharmacist, gave me a tour of his marvelously efficient pharmacy that was primarily run by a mechanical robot.  Customers of the pharmacy were served by human beings, but the laborious and meticulous chores of stocking and picking were handled by the high speed robot.  It was fascinating to watch.  My friend explained that his robot “does the work of multiple employees, never complains or talks backs, never expects to be paid more for doing less, never slows down, demands no fringe benefits, is a great listener, and usually can be easily fixed with a screwdriver when it gets sick.”   I was pretty much sold by the time I left his amazing facility.

My next thought was how my friend’s robot might be used to kick this place into gear, speed up the show at all levels, gut 70 percent of the payroll, and get people like me out of here in a fraction of the time.  As I explored these robotic possibilities to kill time, it dawned on me that, in a sense, I had been watching robots.  Not mechanical high-speed marvels powered by electricity and fixed with a screwdriver.  No, these were slow moving human beings who presumably were powered by real emotions, feelings, passions, and maybe even some dreams.  Yet, from my vantage point, it appeared as if the emotions, feelings, passions and dreams had been sucked right out of them.

My frustration from needlessly having to blow an hour soon evolved into a sad empathy – a realization that somewhere along the line this place had become a gloomy tomb where human beings spend their lives robotically discharging chores at a pace and under circumstances that no one really gives a hoot about.  I figured that’s why their job stability probably has nothing to do with their job performance. That’s why everything was so dead.  And then I speculated:  Imagine how many of these gloomy tombs exist throughout our ever-growing government bureaucracies that have come to accept waste, inefficiency and lousy oversight as the unavoidable norm.

What this place so sadly lacked were the pressures that perpetually engage and incent employees to maximize finite resources, constantly improve efficiencies, get more from less, and, yes, make a profit.  When money is thrown at a cause or need without these pressures, it’s easy to develop a destructive go-through-the-motions mindset that guarantees inefficiencies and waste and precludes the possibility of any success.

These pressures, when smartly managed, benefit everyone in an organization. The rewards for employees go far beyond any additional compensation they might net.  The despair of complacency and an obsession to give only the minimum soon disappear.  Definable, measurable stakes in the effort trigger an expanded purpose, a growing desire to excel, and an ongoing push to elevate the performance of the entire group.  Everything seems faster, including the clock.  A healthy sense of urgency, for the sake of efficiency, keeps everyone energized. What some may regard as mundane, even demeaning, often becomes challenging and rewarding – sometimes even exciting.

Sound impossible?  It happens every day in businesses that, out of necessity, reward, incent, and cherish their employees by smartly tapping into the best the human spirit has to offer.

April 12, 2012