November 30, 2008
Quicker, better, cheaper and Now! ... And other client expectations
Right after the search for youth comes the search for methods of improving productivity. Ever since the Pharaohs considered how to build the pyramids more quickly and with less labor to feed, management has been on a search for improved work pace. Delicious film productions like Cecil B. De Mille’s The Ten Commandments in which a captive people labor in the scorching sun beneath the whips of pharaoh’s overseers began to lay the foundations for today’s notions of productivity. Never have people suffered so gloriously than in the hands of Mr. De Mille.
Today, with our workforce quest of better, quicker, cheaper, we are reduced to taking the best two out of three. So how did the mid-level managers of the pyramid days manage their teams? And achieve such great productivity?
Harvard Magazine dug deep into the stories of the pyramids and the Great Sphinx. These stone miracles rise inexplicably from the desert at Giza, relics of a vanished culture. They dwarf the approaching sprawl of modern Cairo, a city of 16 million. The largest pyramid was until early in the twentieth century the biggest building on the planet. To raise it, laborers moved into position six and a half million tons of stone—some in blocks as large as nine tons—with nothing but wood and rope.
During the last 4,500 years, the pyramids have drawn every kind of admiration and interest, ranging in ancient times from religious worship to grave robbery, and, in the modern era, from New-Age claims for healing “pyramid power” to pseudoscientific searches by “fantastic archaeologists” seeking hidden chambers or signs of alien visitations to Earth.
As feats of engineering or testaments to the decades-long labor of tens of thousands, they have awed even the most sober observers. The question of who labored to build them, and why, has long been part of their fascination. Rooted firmly in the popular imagination is the idea that the pyramids were built by slaves serving a merciless pharaoh. This notion of a vast slave class in Egypt originated in Judeo-Christian tradition and has been popularized by Hollywood. But graffiti from inside the Giza monuments themselves have long suggested something very different. He has found the city of the pyramid builders. They were not slaves. And they were very productive.
What was needed then and needed now is the business leadership that leads productivity. When teams feel connected and inspired by their leaders, they respond with higher productivity, more attention to quality and a sense of purpose. Without that leadership, things fall flat. Errors pop up frequently, absenteeism becomes rampant and turnover is an issue.
Recently, in a discussion of hospital effectiveness and wellness, I suggested that instead of searching for state data on rates of recovery, potential patients should see if they could find the rate of turnover in their care teams. If the nursing staff is composed primarily of day workers from a contract care service, I would be wary of their care. This is nothing negative about their own abilities, but nurses who do not know their teammates, the doctors or how things work, struggle to do their best.
If the pyramid builders were around today, the leadership lessons they might share would be about using talents where they are best applied, building teams with shared goals and visions, and respecting their workers. That is what Harvard Magazine discovered when they went beyond the surface and found out how the pyramids were really built.