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Plan, Do, Check, Act: Could treating employees like adults be the answer?

This post was contributed by Joyce Maroney, Executive Director of the Workforce Institute at Kronos.

What, you might ask, is the question?  Despite the tsunami of studies and opinion pieces written about strategies to improve employee experience and loyalty - and thereby productivity - it seems as though many organizations continue to hew to the philosophy of Frederick Taylor when it comes to management.  Taylor died over a century ago, but not before unleashing the principles of scientific management on the world.

Taylor developed his scientific management theories at a time when the production of goods was largely accomplished by workers who individually crafted their products.  Productivity and quality varied widely as a result.  Taylor's innovation was to break down production work into measurable steps, design scaleable efficiency into production processes, and hold workers accountable for achievement of measurable output goals.  Taylor wasn't anti-worker as much as he was pro-productivity.  A downside of this approach, though, is that as work and jobs became more specialized, individual workers had less insight about the products they were building and the customers for those products.

A counter movement to treating workers like interchangeable game pieces began in post-WWII Japan.  Dr. W. Edwards Deming, an American professor of statistics, was invited to Japan to give lectures on applying statistical methods in business.  Like Taylor, Deming sought to increase productivity by leveraging objective data to drive improvements.  Deming, though, believed the best results would come from using data to help front line employees and managers collaborate to drive continuous improvements.  His 4 PDCA principles (Plan, Do, Check, Act) became known as the Kaizen method in Japan, and spurred successive generations of management thought including TQM (total quality management) and LEAN Six Sigma.  In a nutshell, Deming believed that workers were adults whose insights were critical to continuously improving their organization's results.

Today, the amount of data available for improvement efforts is monumental and there is no shortage of business analytics solutions promising to help organizations use that data.  Yet, many organizations continue to struggle to meet their productivity goals.  It's not for lack of tools, but often because their people don't feel valued for what they can contribute at work.  A 2014 report from the Boston Consulting Group, reporting on a global survey of 200,000 workers, revealed that the top reason for happiness on the job was "appreciation for their work".

How hard is it to say thank you and show that appreciation?  In recent research we conducted of nearly 3,000 employees across eight nations, we found that 41% of respondents worldwide (47% in the US) were surprised by positive feedback on their most recent performance review.  I wonder how many of those folks had a foot out the door because they didn't believe their efforts were making an impact.

In this research, we also found that many organizations undermine their employees' experience in a variety of ways with antiquated attitudes about time off, productivity, and workload that make it challenging for employees to negotiate basic work-life demands, potentially leading them to burnout - and out the door to better opportunities.  Many of the issues our respondents cited could be rolled up under the theme of the consequences of managing employees like potentially naughty children vs. responsible adults who (mostly) come to work planning to do a good job.

More of our findings are listed below - many of which point to environments in which trust between workers and their managers isn't as strong as it could be.  How many of these are issues in your organization?

  • Almost half of employees (47 percent) have had a time-off request rejected by their employer within the last 12 months
    • Of the 47 percent who have had a time-off request rejected, one in four employees surveyed globally (26 percent) had a vacation request denied; about a fifth were not permitted to use personal time (22 percent) or sick time (16 percent); and 10 percent say their employer actually rejected a bereavement request.
    • In the U.S., 21 percent of public safety employees have had a sick day request rejected, followed closely by 18 percent of retail associates. For manufacturing (23 percent) and healthcare (17 percent) employees, the most commonly rejected time-off request is the use of vacation time.
    • Nearly half of all employees globally directly blame their manager (45 percent) when a time-off request is rejected, which could create an uncomfortable rift that further disengages employees. Blaming the manager is even more common in Mexico (49 percent), Australia and New Zealand (48 percent), Canada (46 percent), and Germany (46 percent).
    • Canada, the U.K., and U.S. lead the world in workaholics, with 11 percent of survey respondents reporting they have not asked for any time off within the last year.
  • Less than half of employees (41 percent) globally believe preventing employee burnout is a top priority for their organization
    • Nearly a third of employees (29 percent) surveyed say they are currently approaching a state of burnout and need their workload to change. The situation is most severe in France (42 percent) and Mexico (40 percent).
    • About a third of employees (31 percent) globally believe their manager does not care if they burn out. In the U.S., where burnout is a hot topic, that drops to about a quarter of employees (27 percent).
    • Older U.S. millennials1 (36 percent), as well as public safety (42 percent), logistics and transportation (35 percent), and retail employees (30 percent), feel most strongly that their managers do not care if they burn out.
    • Three-quarters of employees (72 percent) say they try hard to avoid sick days, which may be a byproduct of stringent company policies around sick time, as 29 percent of survey respondents also say they're expected to be at work even when they are ill. In fact, a quarter (25 percent) are required to report to work while ill so their manager can judge how sick they are.
    • Access to sick pay is a barrier to rest and recovery: nearly half of employees in Mexico (45 percent) and France (43 percent) say they work while ill because they are not paid for sick leave. This is also true for a third (34 percent) of U.K. employees, as well as a quarter of those in Canada (27 percent), Australia/New Zealand (27 percent), and U.S. (22 percent). In Germany, it drops even lower to just 19 percent.
  • Nine out of 10 employees globally (90 percent) think their organization can improve scheduling
    • With an eye on technology, a third of employees surveyed globally (33 percent) want solutions that make it easier to swap shifts, seek coverage from colleagues, or opt into open shifts for more hours, especially through mobile phones and tablets.
    • More than a quarter (28 percent) wish their organization would embrace self-scheduling, allowing employees to build their own schedules or select preferred shifts that make it easier to manage personal responsibilities outside of work.
    • Employees are also frustrated with how long it takes managers to approve time-off and scheduling change requests (28 percent).




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