Government Inefficiency? Blame Division-of-Labor Pains.

The roots of the problems with government processes go all the way back to Adam Smith.
by | September 15, 2010 AT 3:26 PM

This past Independence Day, I wrote about what the Revolutionary War could teach us about fixing government more than 200 years later. Ironically, when we talk about how we got so screwed up, we need to jump into the Delorean, fire up the flux capacitor and head back to the same year — we just need to land on the other side of the pond.

In addition to dealing with those pesky rebels in the colonies, England was trying to cope with a second revolution at home. People were leaving farms across the country and migrating to the urban areas. The Industrial Revolution drove demand for products through the roof and flooded the city with a workforce that was well versed in animal husbandry and horticulture, but lacked the education and experience to make a living as skilled craftsmen.

Remember, you couldn't walk into "ye olde Wal-mart shoppe" and pick up eggs, horseshoes, a musket and sewing pins. If you wanted furniture, you found a carpenter who had studied for years and honed his craft to an art. He would go about making you furniture that fit your needs. Sounds OK, but as more people flooded into cities, carpenters and other craftsment just could not keep up with the new demand, and the new workforce could not simply jump in and start hammering away to help.

Then along comes Adam Smith, the grandfather of modern economics and hero to number geeks across the globe. He is studying the impact of this growing problem and puts forth a revolutionary idea: We can't teach John Boy to become a carpenter, but we can teach him to just sand the wood. In fact, if we can break the steps of making furniture into several simple, repeatable steps, then we can use this workforce to meet the growing demand. Thus, the division of labor — the assembly line — was born. And 200 years later, it's got our pipes so kinked-up and clogged we move at the speed of ... well ... government.

So, you're thinking, "We don't have assembly lines at work. We don't make furniture." But you do. Our widgets may not be made on a factory floor, like how we visualize assembly lines. But let's look at a common factory we all have some experience with: human resources. If I want to hire a new employee for my private-sector company, I may place an ad in the paper, then call folks to set up an interview, then pick who fits my needs and make her an offer. The whole process may take two weeks.

Can you hire in two weeks? Why not?

The government assembly line starts with the request to hire. That goes to someone in HR who will need to decide if this is new hire or filling an existing position. Let's pray it's an existing one, and that we have a job description and funding to fill it. Task one. Then it goes to someone, usually in a centralized function, who will advertise for the job in the papers, websites, at job fairs and so on. Task two. Applications will come in and get date-stamped up front until the closing date. Task three. Those applicants get ranked by a position specialist and put on a list. Task four. That list goes to someone who will call and set up interviews. Task five. Someone else usually interviews. Task six. A decision is made, and HR sends the official offer. Task seven. An assembly line of hiring. Not like Henry Ford's, but close.

Do you see the division of labor? In the first example, one person does the complex task of hiring an individual. In the second example, we have seven simpler tasks in a complex process to get to the same outcome. To get simple tasks, we need complex processes. To get simple processes, we need more complex tasks. It all grows from the theory that was planted the same time we were declaring our nation's independence: Hold the fireworks.

We justify dividing the labor into these simple tasks — and asking people to become specialists — by telling ourselves we are giving them a career path and professional goals to shoot for. The reality is far less attractive. What we are fostering is the moldy thinking that our employees can only handle simple tasks. They cannot be trusted to be a carpenter, but they can be a Wood Sander I and hope that when someone retires they can get promoted to a Sander II. Think I'm making this up as I go? How many of us have a I, II, III and IV after our job title? It's how we've been doing work for centuries, and the fact that we don't have farmers making chair parts only proves that our work has changed. Our thinking about it has not.

Back to the future: As Adam Smith was selling his division-of-labor theories, he was also warning that this is a short-term solution. He wrote that people would not find value in their work if all they did was a simple repeatable task all day, every day. That workers would eventually feel demeaned, like unvalued drones. It was a necessary evil to keep up with the demand and cope with this new type of workforce, but it wasn't ideal.

Today, we have amazing technology to exploit; we have work that does not lend itself to a traditional assembly line model; and we have an educated workforce. But it's an educated workforce that often feels undervalued and demeaned. We have lost our connection to the big picture by focusing on only the smaller parts in trusted to us. We lost sight because the work has changed, but our view of the worker has not. Hmmmm.... Maybe, Adam Smith wasn't such a pinhead after all.

Now I'm not saying that government leaders across the country consider their employees uneducated drones fresh off the farm. However, it's not what we say, it's what we do. And what we do is continue to divide our work. Translation: You as an HR rep cannot be trusted to hire employees start to finish, but you can be trusted to review and rank applicants only. We also continue to reward specialization by promoting within these tasks. Translation: Don't worry about the entire process, you'll be rewarded for doing your simple task better and better. We continue to breed a culture that was recognizably flawed at its conception.

The root of our kinked-up and clogged pipes is the division of labor. Chopping our work up causes handoffs, delays, bottlenecks, batches and backlog. It adds time, costs and levels of inspections that frustrate our customers — as well as our fellow employees.

The division of labor is also the root of so many employees' feeling undervalued and losing their connection with our noble outcomes. It forces us to focus on the tasks and not the process as a whole and the outcomes we are after. It stifles innovation and unintentionally fosters a culture of mistrust.

Our pipes are busted. If we want to fix them, we need to rethink how we work. We need to expose these kinked-up pipes and stop our own cycle that all started with Adam Smith. It's time for a new Industrial Revolution that matches today's needs and today's workforce. That means abandoning the idea that workers cannot be trusted with more complex tasks and thus frees up our ability to simplify our processes. Simplified processes mean faster, more affordable government services that increase our capacity to do more good and achieve more and more of the noble outcomes we want to be connected to.