Human beings generate all kinds of foolishness at work, both as employees and as managers. Recently, a manufacturing company was facing one of the most human problems of all: Employees were spending too much time off the assembly line, costing precious production hours. Managers suspected employees of hiding out in the bathroom in order to use their cell phones. Their solution: Install a key card lock on all bathroom doors and limit employees to six minutes a day in the potty (yes, I have kids). They now track employees in the bathroom, disciplining anyone who goes over their allotted time.
Manufacturing lives and dies by efficiency- the more managers can control and predict their processes, the more cost effective they become. However, human beings are inherently messy. They aren’t robots, and yes, sometimes they hide out in the bathroom to play Angry Birds. They developed an engineering solution to more tightly control the human part of the process. But here’s the thing: punishing an entire production line because of a few low performers is not a good solution to the problem, and does not address the root cause of the issue. Instead, the solution will likely cause more issues than it resolves. The company probably saved a few hours of production time, but lost the goodwill, loyalty, and discretionary effort of employees. If your workplace is so tilted you have to track who is in the bathroom for how long, you have bigger leadership issues to grapple with. When we treat employees like children, do not be surprised when they act like children (my own children do not like it when I treat them like children, except when I want them to work, in which case they revert to helpless two-year olds).
It would be easy to ignore the employees in this situation- at some point it became normal to spend a lot of time in the bathroom. That’s not okay either- other people have to carry your load while you read up on LeBron coming back to Cleveland (or check Facebook or play Clash of Clans or whatever you do while you do). Creating productive and engaging work environments is everyone’s responsibility, not just management. It’s not naïve to think employees could have solved this problem before the key card locks were installed, and in a manner that treated everyone with dignity and respect (when we act like children, don’t be surprised when management turns into angry, vindictive parents).
This story is likely more complicated than it seems, on both sides of the issue. What is clear is that more control and less respect is not going to help this organization move forward (imagine if someone was timing how long you spend in the bathroom each day and how you would feel, whether you are a 3-minutes-a-day-sprinter or a 15-minutes-a-day-stroller). More leadership at all levels is the best path, although it is the tougher path to walk.