You Can’t Saw People in Half

You Can’t Saw People in HalfWhen there’s a big job, you’re taught to break it into a series of sub tasks, sequence them, and go after them with vigor. When there are different types of work within a job, you’re taught to break down the work into related bits of work, assign specialists, and take them on with the utmost efficiency. When there’s a big problem, you’re taught to break it into mini problems, solve them one at a time, and then recombine. This works sometimes, but more often than not, it doesn’t. The world is complex; everything’s interconnected; and the improvement itself can change the system and create a new and more powerful dilemma. Though we know this, divide and conquer is still the favorite first choice.

Okay, it works sometimes, and it’s reasonable to use it with projects and problems, but it doesn’t work on all things. And by far, the most egregious misuse of the separation principle is when it’s used on people.

Mind and body are parts of an inseparable whole, but in practice, that’s not how it goes. Exercise for the body improves the mind, but exercise is not mandatory. And in the long term, exercise is preventive maintenance for body and the mind – lower healthcare costs, happier people, more productivity, and better work. Our machines get preventive maintenance but our people don’t. For some reason, we think it’s possible to separate the mind from the body.

Home life and work life are two parts of a single, integrated, whole life, but in practice, they’re considered two independent elements. Much like the old magician’s trick, we’re sawed in half yet expected to function as a whole person at work. Too much work and the family suffers; and when the family suffers, the work suffers. It’s that simple. Not enough sleep at home, the work suffers. (And, maybe some sleep at work.) Crisis at home and no time off to take care of it, work suffers. Time away from the kids, the work suffers. The best way to create resentment and bad attitudes is to saw people’s lives in half. We have only one life, and it can’t be parsed into independent elements. The magician’s trick isn’t real. It’s a trick.

When accountability is demanded without the authority, resources, tools, training or time, it’s a cardinal misuse of the separation principle. Here, resources are subtracted from the problem and the solution is no longer part of the equation. This one causes your best people to apply herculean effort and rip their lives apart trying to achieve success where it’s not possible.

We don’t run our machines without oil; we don’t run them at twice the recommended speed; we don’t expect them to run without electrical power or compress air; and we don’t expect them to do their work without the tooling. Yet we expect people to do their work without the resources. We religiously perform preventive maintenance on our machines; we schedule downtime; we fix them when they break; and we buy the best replacement parts to keep them in top form. For people, however, we don’t mandate exercise; we ask them to work through their vacation; and we ask them to work at unsustainable speeds.

Today’s environment is strange. People are broken into parts and expected to perform like well oiled machines; and machines are given all they need to get their work done, and people are not.

It’s time to treat problems like problems, machines like machines, and people like people.


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Mike ShipulskiMike Shipulski brings together people, culture, and tools to change engineering behavior.  He writes daily on Twitter as @MikeShipulski and weekly on his blog Shipulski On Design.

Mike Shipulski




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