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Surprise Process Improvement Lessons: The Ant Fable

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Most people are workers, not managers of others. That’s why an old process improvement fable of the ant, the lion and others has been making the rounds for years.

A particularly visual example of the story is now a cartoon slideshow. You can view it on Scribd, or see the embedded version below:

The story is all too common. The people who are actually doing the work find all of the other elements of management, leadership, and analysis to be time consuming and wasteful. In fact, it sometimes seems like a manager is just someone who distracts you from what you should be doing and blames you for their own errors.

consultants thoughts on management

© Flickr user .sanden.

In a healthy organization, however, the relationship between management and employees is quite different. Some of the major distinctions are:

  • Everyone works, not just “workers.” Managers have a responsibility to produce something—even if it’s just clear decisions.
  • Managers focus on coaching and freedom, not mandating and controlling. The best employees are those that are responsible enough to be left alone, and good managers are trying to create environments no one feels the need for constant monitoring.
  • Business consultants ask questions first.  In fact,  everyone feels like they can ask questions.
  • Measurement is focused on what actually matters. Rather the obsessing over the amount of time worked or the time spent on breaks, everyone is interested in measuring results and understanding how cooperation impacts productivity.

It’s easy to interpret the ant fable as an outright attack on management. But it’s really a complaint about what often passes for business process improvement: blindly copying examples from other organizations and hoping they work.

Consider the Lion’s initial “revelation.” He decides that people produce more when they are supervised. But of course there is not really a relationship between output and constantly watching workers. Rather, there are just some people who are responsible and work well independently, and people who are not responsible and therefore need to be monitored. Why not just hire the right people in the first place?

What other parts of the fable remind you of your own professional experience? Share in the comments.

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
Robby Slaughter

@robbyslaughter

Troublemaker and productivity/workflow expert. https://t.co/lJk8tIwe9q. Slightly more complex than 140 characters will permit.
Exhibit C: It was an option. It was even on the receipt. https://t.co/jgCabMuZdr - 2 days ago
Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter

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