Genuinely Ceded Self-Control Creates Environment of Tighter Control Overall

Article excerpt

When Arne Behncke headed Ford of Belgium, he surprised his colleagues with a brash move.

The executive, now on a major assignment in Detroit, gave dealers full authority (with no dollar ceiling) to handle all customer complaints. Result: complaints quickly fell by 75 percent, and costs fell, too.

Or consider the chief of a semiconductor operation who ignored his controller's prediction of catastrophe and upped engineers' spending authority by a factor of five. Not only were the engineers happier and more productive, but spending plummeted by 60 percent in short order.

Then there is retailer Nordstrom: it doesn't attach wires and locks to expensive coats, yet it experiences less shrinkage than those who do.

I call such phenomena the control paradox: less is more. To be more precise, less paper-driven central control and more genuinely ceded self-control for those closest to the action translates into tighter control overall.

Most firms' control systems are jokes. They not only don't provide control, but actively induce game playing and other forms of worker - and managerial - contempt that ensue when a company treats its employees like infants.

One proof of our disingenuous or confused attitude toward control: most execs speak religiously of the beauty of rigid controls, yet live in terror in unionized outfits of employees who ``work to rule'' - i.e., follow the letter of the union contract.

However, we are starting to learn that, as is the case with most modern management paraphernalia, we have systematized and quasi-scientized control, but have in the process run roughshod over the human factor.

Taking people into account is deceptively simple: if workers are trusted, respected, properly trained, given a piece of the action, inspired to pursue an exciting/worthwhile goal (and not subjected to Mickey Mouse and cop supervisors), then you can create a high-control environment with a minimum of formal controls. The catch is that if these factors are absent, then all the psychological screening, documentation and micromanagement in the world will do no good.

In fact, in a classic demonstration of Catch-22, they will just cause harm.

There is no better illustration than the Department of Defense. Its systems of oversight have grown so elaborate that they invite cheating.

For one thing, so much paperwork is required that it would be virtually impossible not to cut a corner. Many of the outrages (such as $600 ashtrays or toilet seats) are a direct product not of greed, but of over-complicated specification systems.

Yet, of course, with every new horror story, the clamor for more control grows. …

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