Understanding is Efficient

“Could you come help my department?”


Thejus Chakravarthy

3 years ago | 4 min read

“Could you come help my department?”

I had a head full of ideas, not a lot of proof, and the kind of blind assurance that I was right that only comes from the myopia of youth. So, of course I said yes.

The department was in charge of transcribing physical forms into an online system. The goal was to have all the forms entered into the system and checked for accuracy by at least two people. It wasn’t something that could be automated since most of the applications were filled out by people with terrible handwriting.

The company saw the department’s staff as cogs in the machine. Important cogs, to be sure, but just cogs: interchangeable, cheap, and easily replaced. The department’s manager, on the other hand, truly cared about his staff. He often took accountability for issues, and made sure the staff were known as the source of any success.

He was my kind of manager.

From what I could see, the department’s manager was suffering from a common issue. He simply didn’t understand what his staff wanted.

He had several ideas about motivation — gift cards as rewards, demerits for poor performance — but none of this shifted their productivity or accuracy. He had even asked them directly, “what could I give you that would make you work faster and with less errors?”

But, people have a hard time saying what they want. As Steve Jobs said, “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” To further complicate things, he was The Boss, and authority has a tendency to warp communication.

As someone from outside the department, I could learn about his staff without that particular complication.

First, I asked for a departmental employee list that included the dates they arrived in the department, and their error rates. I wanted to talk to the outliers, the ones who been there the longest, the ones who were perfect, the ones who were terrible, the new ones who were just getting started. I wanted to hear from the edges of the bell curve.

Once I had my list, I sent them each a personal email telling them I’d selected them from the department for a brainstorming session in one of the conference rooms.

I started the meeting by asking them to write what they wanted in life on the whiteboard. I told them I would step out of the room and be back in 10 minutes. To get them started, I wrote down “Spend more time with my family”.

When I came back, the board was filled with hopes and dreams. Own a home, pick up my kids from school, retire by sixty, save for college tuition. One by one, I walked everyone through the things the company could help with. Then, I circled the things that this department could help with.

At the end of the hour long meeting, I had a deeper understanding of their wants, their dreams, their hopes. They understood that I was someone who cared about those things so they opened up. The exchange continued for a few more days, mostly by email but occasionally in person.

Armed with this understanding, and the stacks of metrics the department manager had provided, I had all the raw materials I needed. I locked myself in my office with a blank whiteboard, a case of Red Bull, and a Do Not Disturb sign on the door.

About four hours later, I had a work plan for the department. It factored in the metrics that were required by the company, the current work rates of the staff, as well as a reward structure that met their specific desires.

I extended it out past the first quarter into the first year and pointed out the spots where, given the new streamlined process, automation could be introduced.

I went home after that, my head ringing and my hands shaking. The next morning, with fresh eyes, I reviewed my plan, made a few tweaks, and went to the department’s manager to show him my solution.

He was not excited. What I was proposing was a radical departure from what he was expecting, from what he was used to seeing. With a little discussion and persuasion, he agreed to try it out for a month.

The results were what I expected, but definitely not what he’d expected. Some of the staff took to the changes like fish to water. Others balked and fought back. The rest ignored it and continued doing what they wanted.

That changed once the rewards started rolling in. Soon, the entire department was following my suggested workflow and the manager was ecstatic. The department had improved so much that their output was forcing other departments to catch up.

And that was music to my ears.

I didn’t do anything that hasn’t been validated by decades of research. Going all the way back to Gilbraith and Kirkpatrick, it’s been well established that understanding your workforce is the best way to figure out how to motivate them. It doesn’t take a lot of effort, but it does take the right kind of effort.

It takes effort to go beyond internal surveys, smile sheets, comment boxes, and all hands meetings. It takes effort to meet and talk with each member of a team, to really come to grips with how they see their work and their lives. It takes effort to truly understand someone.

In the end, understanding people is what really drives efficiency.


Created by

Thejus Chakravarthy

I find ways to help people perform to the best of their abilities, make processes as efficient as possible, ensure technology is being used to accelerate not complicate. In the end, there will always be work. But if we do it together, maybe it won't feel like work.







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