Clean desk bullies ruin productivity: that will be Lean Six Sigma’s fault then…

I was drawn to an article on the excellent BBC Capital website today, “What’s so wrong with dressing up your desk?” by Bryan Borzykowski. “There’s a reason companies are banning personal items on desks. But it may be hurting productivity” goes the byline. Great – this hints at several areas of interest – business culture, leadership, productivity, employee engagement, human motivation and performance.

I’d sum up the core logical argument of the article as:

– Many companies are introducing strict rules limiting or eliminating personal items on desks;
– They are doing so in the belief that this will improve productivity;
– This belief is incorrect. Restricting workspace personalisation disengages staff, and thus actually reduces productivity;
– Therefore, this management practice does not work. On the contrary, companies can improve employee engagement and hence productivity by allowing workspace personalisation

All well and good. However, there are some other premises stated and conclusions drawn along the way, which bear further examination. The first one is that Borzykowski’s sources attribute much of the blame to “two leading management theories: Six Sigma and Lean”. The second is the implication that workspace personalisation is not only directly and strongly correlated with employee engagement and productivity, but a major and isolated causal factor.

On the culpability of “Six Sigma and Lean”, I dispute the sentiments articulated in the article in three ways.

For starters, it claims that these methodologies call for such workspace de-personalisation. “Both take a rigid and cost-efficient approach to work above everything else”, begins the assertion, going on to say that “The idea is to eliminate anything extraneous, because if it’s not central to the task at hand, it’s considered wasteful.” Now without launching into a full treatise on Lean, Six Sigma, and Lean Six Sigma, I cannot agree with these statements. Six Sigma is fundamentally concerned with raising quality from a customer’s perspective, by reducing defects through a rigorous structured and analytical method. Lean, to be sure, pays a great deal of focus on reducing waste in various guises, but it does so in terms of reducing non-value added process activities from the customer’s perspective. Furthermore, waste is by no means the only facet of Lean – it equally looks at concepts such as production levelling and “automation with the human touch”. Both methodologies, together with the fusion version known as Lean Six Sigma, are firmly set out as customer-centric and quality driven. Cost reduction is important, but as a wise man once said, “Focus on cutting costs and you drive down quality, but improve quality and you automatically raise productivity”. No doubt a lot of poor things have been done in the name of improving processes and productivity, but you can’t blame draconian management practices and “slash & burn” cost-cutting on these quality methodologies, quite the opposite. (Read W.Edwards Deming if in any doubt – start with his “14 points for management” and “Seven deadly diseases”).

Personalised workspace restrictions are more likely to have come about from facilities management-based cost reduction practices around hot-desking, activity-based working and the like. Less workstations than staff, lockers, no fixed desks etc. Now there are some pros and cons to these kind of initiatives, but that’s for another posting.

Anyway, on to the second point re “Six Sigma and Lean” as the bad guys. Borzykowski’s article over-states, in my opinion, the degree to which “Six Sigma and Lean” are adopted by companies, and the extent to which they incorporate such methodologies into their policies and decision making. Unfortunately perhaps! Many larger companies have extensively deployed either or both methodologies – for example pioneers such as Toyota, Motorola and GE – but very few have made the quality & process perspective a core part of their business practices. Most companies that I’ve encountered deploy these practices through separate, periodic initiatives, or have an internal team as a “centre of excellence” working with the broader business lines. I really do not think there are many – if any – companies or managers that would “have been taught that Six Sigma is the right way to manage” and apply that teaching by ordering removal of Jones’s photo of the wife and kids on holiday in Bali.

Finally on this, it is both incorrect and extraneous to the central theme of the article, to claim that these theories don’t work and have no benefits! They can, and do, as has been evidenced in such companies as Toyota, Motorola, and GE, along with many others. Other companies’ implementations have often been badly executed, and failed to meet expectations, which is why firms also need the right leadership, vision, strategy, implementation capability, and sustaining capability, if they wish to go down that path.

More than enough on Lean, Six Sigma, and variants thereof. Back to my assertion that Borzykowski’s article implies workplace personalisation is a major and isolated causal factor in business productivity. It is reasonable, from my experience, research and observation, to conclude that there is a direct and positive correlation between personalisation policies and employee engagement, and similarly between employee engagement and productivity. It would, however, be more appropriate to consider that these policies are just a small part of the complex web of corporate expectations and resultant employee behaviours which constitute business culture.

Workspace personalisation is likely to occupy a very tiny portion of corporate leadership’s time and mental energy – but it is likely to be highly symptomatic of the broader leadership style, management beliefs and practices, and hence of that broader business culture. In other words, it may not be of itself the cause of poor employee engagement, but rather one contributing factor along with many other causes. It could even be an effect, part of a vicious circle response to declining productivity and corporate performance driven by other internal and external factors.

I’m all for “re-humanising the workspace”, for companies treating their human resources as humans, not just resources. For companies that create and sustain a business culture that attracts and keeps the right people, that values their contributions, and allows them to be engaged and have a sense of pride and passion about their work. The modern stampede towards professed customer centricity cannot be achieved by short-term cost cutting alone, but by understanding and anticipating customer needs, and by building ever-better processes and systems delivered and operated by ever-better people. Lean Six Sigma, when understood in the spirit of W.Edwards Deming and others like him, can offer some powerful insights and techniques with which to achieve genuine customer centricity and business success. To agree with Borzykowski, however, I don’t think it’s necessary to ban the pot-plant to get there.

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