Quantum Physics and Refuse Collection

Originally posted July 2013

At the moment I’m reading and enjoying Daniel Pink’s “Drive”, and have just reached the point where he describes companies who have introduced a system called ROWE (Results Only Work Environment) – where so long as the objectives are achieved, there is no monitoring of whether an employee is in work, or if they are  actually working at a particular time.

It sounds innovative and radical, but it reminded me of my days working as an Industrial Relations Officer for a local council in the late 1980s. There, the refuse collection department was seen as a hotbed of labour disputes. One of the particular problems from a management perspective was a working practice called “Stint and Finish”, where once the days bins were collected, the bin men could finish work. So although contracted to work between 730 and 430, with an hour for lunch, the men (and they were all men in those days) would – by agreement between themselves – cut short their break and aimed to finish as early as possible – usually by 230 and earlier on a Friday.

At the time, the government were introducing “Compulsory Competitive Tendering”, whereby Councils had to tender their direct services and where – provided minimal quality standards were met – price was the only determining factor. “If the staff can finish that early every day, then they must not have enough to do – and maybe we need fewer staff” ran the logic. “If we can cut costs, the in-house service has more chance of winning the tender”.

So off were dispatched the Council’s Work Study team (or as they grandly titled themselves “Industrial Engineers”) with their stop watches and clipboards, along with the Safety Officer to make sure that the staff were following proper procedures. And what did they find…? Without any apparent dawdling or shirking, each daily round was completed exactly as specified and the vehicles arrived back promptly at 430. It was almost as if, like sub-atomic particles, the very act of observation had changed the behaviour of the employees.  And on the days the study was being carried out, residents’ complaints about late collection of the bins rose.

What we had was the classic trade-off between efficiency (keep costs to an absolute minimum and work staff as hard as they can be) and effectiveness (provide a service residents are happy with, give staff the freedom to organise the work as they see fit within a defined cost base). Where does your organisation lie?

(Oh, and if you’re interested, the in-house team won the competitive tendering bid)


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