Telling people what to do creates the resistance that prevents them from doing it.
Try telling your teenager to clean their room, see what happens.
An Oil Drilling Rig run by a German Drilling contractor in the Central Venezuelan Oil field was told by the client that if their performance did not improve they could expect to be told to pack up the rig and remove it from the country.
The majority of the workforce was made up of Venezuelan jungle Indians who six months previously had never even seen an oil rig.
The more experienced members of each crew came from other drilling operations within Venezuela, and the Toolpushers, the rig supervisors, were European.
I visited the rig, one of several drilling in that oilfield, and immediately recognised that the problems were being caused by the directive nature of the management on that rig.
One operation I watched, skidding the rig, took eight hours to complete.
During those eight hours the crew supervisor, the Toolpusher, spent the whole time all over the operation, shouting at people, telling them what to do, directing the operation, hands completely on.
I recognised that it was the behaviour of the Toolpusher that was preventing the crew from performing.
That first day I made a bet with the rig manager, the Toolpusher’s immediate boss, that by the time I left the rig, three weeks later, that the same operation would take place in one hour.
His was complete disbelief but I persuaded him that he had nothing to lose so reluctantly he accepted the bet.
Management of the rig knew that they were working as hard as they could and could not see how they could operate any faster than they were already doing.
Paradoxically, the pressure that the client was heaping on the rig management to perform was then transmitted to the crew by the redoubled efforts of the supervisors to get them to perform.
Since it was the behaviour of the supervisors that was preventing the crew from performing in the first place, the added pressure was creating even more resistance in the workforce and was causing performance to deteriorate even more.
To change the way that the managers behaved towards the workforce we had to change the way that the workforce performed, but to change the way that the workforce performed we had to change the way that management behaved towards the workforce. Catch 22, or was it?
Managers were not asked or told to make any changes.
If we had done that we would have created in management the same resistance in them to change that they were experiencing from their workforce when they told them what to do.
Instead we talked to the crews, for 15 minutes before each shift the crews would meet to talk about what had happened since their last shift and what was coming up in the next one.
We used this fifteen minute window each shift to ask the crews what had worked well in their last shift, what they could do to make sure it kept working well, what had happened that did not work so well, and what could we do to prevent it happening in the future.
Each idea that was gathered was taken to the Toolpusher who was only allowed to give each idea one of two responses. Either yes, good idea we will do that, or no, not such a good idea, but here is the reason why not.
These responses have two effects.
First, by giving the originator of the idea a response it means that even if the answer is no, he knows why and will look for another solution himself. If the answer is yes he is getting recognition for his idea. Either way we are stimulating the flow of ideas from the crew to produce practical ideas that will improve the operational performance.
Second, receiving feedback gives the crew something that was missing.
They are being listened to, they are being valued. Having their input recognised changes the way that they feel about what they do.
By giving the crew this feedback we change the way they feel about what they do, we allow them to engage.
In two days we gathered 74 ideas from the crews about how to improve the operation of the skid.
None of these ideas were new.
The crew already had these ideas in their heads but did not give them to management because of the way that management behaved towards them.
The crew had given us all of their ideas and the next time the rig skidded it was done in seven hours, the fastest ever and management were very pleased, but the crew were not, they knew they could do better.
We talked to the crew and asked them what went well and what had gone badly.
At first they were quiet but they warmed up and started to shout out their ideas again.
I put their ideas on the whiteboard in two lists then when we had finished I asked them what the difference was between the two lists.
The driller looked at the lists and he got it.
He said that the left hand list was new ideas and the right hand one was ideas that they had already suggested, but that they had not implemented.
So I asked them what they could do to avoid producing two lists after the next skid.
After some thought the driller said that the crew should have a list of the ideas that they had already had so that they could check when they had been done.
I said that I would try to get them their list by the next day.
I had that list already in my pocket but I knew that if I gave it to them they would resist using it because they would perceive it as my list.
This way it was their list of their ideas and because it was theirs, they would use it.
In three weeks the time it took to skid the rig went from 8 hours to 55 minutes.
I won my bottle of beer and the rig manager, who had been so sceptical, asked me "How on earth did you do that?"
If I had tried to tell him what I was going to do or what would happen when I first arrived he would have refused to believe me and resisted.
After all, how could someone with no experience of drilling come to a drilling rig and make it run better than he could, he had spent his whole working life managing drilling rigs?
So I told him nothing until he asked, then I explained everything knowing that now he really wanted to know how to support his crews in this new level of performance.
This new behaviour was producing similar performance improvements in every other aspect of the rigs performance and we were eventually called into the office of the clients field supervisor and asked to deliver a lecture to the other drilling operators in the field about what we had done.
The field supervisor then told the other operators if they did not employ me then they also would be under threat of removal.
None of the other operators took up the field supervisors kind offer of assistance.
I did not expect them to because they had been told what to do.
We knew what a difference we had made on one rig by not telling people what to do so I was certain that by telling the other managers what to do, nothing would happen.
I left the rig for good after three months but I phoned the Toolpusher four months later and one of the questions that I asked was “How was the Rig Skidding going?”
The Toolpusher told me that since I had left the Rig Skid had never taken more than one hour.
Nobody was telling them what to do or setting them targets. They were skidding the rig faster than any of the managers had seen a rig skidded before because they were proud of their ability to do it.
They were engaged.
When we tell people what to do we are creating the conditions that will cause them to fail.
To get people to do what we want we have to find a way to do it without telling them.
We changed the way that the crews felt about what they did.
We created the conditions that allowed them to care about what they did, they became engaged, they were proud of what they did.
If you ever need evidence of the power of pride, try stealing a football supporters scarf.
The secret to creating this change is to do it without telling anybody what to do.
We don’t have to tell the workforce what they need in order to engage, they already know.
We don’t have to tell the workforce that we want them to engage because that is the way they want to be.
We don’t tell the managers what they have to do to allow their workforces to engage.
We just show them what happens when the workforce do engage, then wait for them to ask us “How did you do that?”
At no point were we trying to do anything that people did not want.
This meant that we did not have to tell anyone what to do, and because we did not tell anyone what to do we did not create the resistance that would have made the implementation fail.
Douglas McGregor proposed a similar system of management in his book, “The Human Side Of Enterprise” sixty years ago. At about the same time Nye Bevan proposed that the nascent National Health Service should be run by allowing the people who delivered the services, the doctors nurses and other care staff, to have control over what they needed to have to deliver those services.
This never happened and may be responsible for the fact that in recent times successive governments have all increased spending on the NHS in real terms and in each case the delivery of services has deteriorated.
The website, www.breakingthemould.co.uk contains many articles, videos and other related resources