By Kevin Meyer
The other day I was talking to a couple execs at a local
manufacturing company, and the usual topic of the evils of doing business in
California came up. I responded that
yes, it is difficult, but if you used some brains it was possible to
out-compete even Asian sweatshops even from the state that does everything possible to bite the hand that feeds it. And as usual, since this
conversation is unfortunately rather common, they looked at me with an expression
asking if I was already taking advantage of the “medical” marijuana dispensary
One of them then said, in a bit of a huff, “I do use my
brain, and we can’t compete.” To which I said “It’s not your brain that I’m
You see, these guys still thought of the hundred or so folks
in their factory like this:
As those of us in the lean community know, that’s an
incomplete picture. Those folks really
look like this:
That funny-looking attachment, unrecognizable by many
executives, is a brain. The brain has a
bunch of functions, detailed here:
Now, to be fair, I’m sure many execs do realize there’s some mysterious
blob attached to the hands, especially since OSHA requires them to put safety
glasses or a hard hat on it. But I’m guessing they
think the only valuable component of that brain is this:
Obviously something has to control that pair of hands – so they do value a part of the motor control area! How enlightened! However lean types, especially real lean
types that fully understand, embrace, and leverage the respect for people
pillar of lean, know that the rest of the brain is a beautiful thing:
It is fairly easy to distinguish which executives,
especially CFOs, understand this. Ask
them two simple questions:
- How much will it cost me to hire a person (I
dare you to say “a brain”)?
- How much will I save if I can reduce my
headcount (uh, “braintrust”?) by one?
Typically the answer to the first question will be “well,
add up the wage dollars, then tack on benefits, then tack on an overhead "costs", and it’s about $100 per hour.”
If that was the answer to the first question, then almost
invariably the answer to the second question will be “add up the wage dollars,
and a portion of the benefits, so about $25 an hour.”
Hmmm… something doesn’t add up. Why does it cost more to bring someone on
than can be “saved” if the person goes away?
I won’t get into that particular insanity here, but most of us have
Funny, there’s a particular anatomical entity that isn’t
even considered. Where is the value of
the brain? The ideas that lead to
improvements that lead to increased productivity, improved processes, and
increased customer value? Somehow that’s
not “real” because it’s not on a P&L or balance sheet.
But I bet that company still has a slogan on a wall
somewhere that says “Employees are our most valuable asset.” Really?
And that’s why those kinds of companies chase “cheap” labor
around the world. Perhaps to China, then
now to Vietnam or Burma or someplace.
They look at a P&L and balance sheet sort of like this:
Now a few people are lucky enough to work for organizations
where the answer to those two questions would be:
“How will that person help us create customer value? Are we paying enough to respect the knowledge
and experience she’ll bring to our team?”
“Are you really sure we can afford to lose his experience
and knowledge? Could he add value in another area? How will losing his ideas
impact our productivity?”
Yes, you sometimes have to dream a bit. But I’ve known a couple CFOs that really talk
like that. A rare breed. And they look at a P&L and balance sheet
analysis of a potential offshore move this way:
Those execs, and even CFOs, realize that traditional financial statements are flawed. The value of the brain – the experience and knowledge that drives creativitity and ideas – isn't represented. Therefore there isn't an offsetting brain value to the "cost" of the pair of hands. Not realizing this is why some companies do crazy things like whack a couple thousand highly experienced people, move overseas, and hire a couple thousand replacement unexperienced people. And claim it adds value.
I've seen some of those enlightened CFOs even try to find ways around a traditional P&L and balance sheet. One capitalized all the training time applied to people, so if a person left they then had to expense a portion of that capitalized cost. It's stretching a few concepts and even GAAP, but at least she understood reality.
More and more companies and organizations are beginning to understand the value of the brain – which is why more and more companies are returning to North America. They leverage their brains to be agile, create custom solutions, and find innovative ways to add value to their customers. Even in California.
Sometimes it takes a brain to know one…
Steve Brenneman says
Well put! I love this stuff but why is the other way of thinking so normal and our way so abnormal? Are the numbers guys taking over the universe? That is the sentiment of William Greider in “The Soul of Capitalism” Basically that there was a transition from the engineer founders of the early 20th century to the “value extractors/mantainers” during the 50s, 60s and 70s. Who knows-you should write a book about why this brain value idea is so abnormal. Just my two cents…
Mark Graban says
You can tell a lot about an organization when leaders refer to people as FTEs, bodies or warm bodies… even “heads” is a bit dehumanizing (since we also have “hearts”). We are people. Part of the brilliance of Dr. Deming was his preaching that psychology was the most important thing for managers… to understand each individual and to manage/lead people as individuals. To me, that’s a huge component of “respect for people.”
Brian Veara says
“You manage things, you lead people. We went overboard on management and forgot about leadership.” Admiral Grace Hopper