One November night in Berlin, I gave away my trousers.
It was in 1989. I happened, by chance, to be there, on business, when massive protests, on both sides of the Berlin Wall, culminated in the end of the East German Government and the Wall came down.
I watched the East German equivalent of a JCB push over a huge slab of concrete wall, like a draw-bridge and people piled through the gap, into the West. A young East German made a bee-line for me, gave me a bear-hug and started a conversation in perfect English.
I was wearing a pair of Levi 501 jeans, with a metal button, fly-front… no zip. He’d never seen a pair for real. With his friends and my business colleagues, we spent the rest of the night doing what you always do in a revolution… stay up all night and drink beer.
The next morning we all went to my hotel for the German equivalent of a full-English. I was heading home and I changed out of my jeans into biz-suit and gave the 501's to my new East German friend.
You’d think I’d given him the Crown Jewels. Alas, I never heard from him again. Life moved on.
The East German State had learned what every organisation must learn and every manager must know; treat people badly and in the end, they get their own back.
All of this was happening whilst, on the other side of the world, Lester Bittel was underlining these points with the observation that management sometimes;
‘…has a tendency to underestimate the ability of workers to effectively contribute to the decision making processes and those that don’t, do better.’
Note to politicians; it’s called democracy.
About the same time, a business management book was causing a stir. It was a masterclass in the power of workplace democracy.
It looked carefully at the differences between US and Japanese management styles and how they contributed to the Asian economic boom.
Japan had the highest productivity in the world and the US was in decline. What was happening?
The answer had nothing to do with technology, or computing, investment or robotics. The answer was simple; how you manage the people makes the difference that people can make.
‘This, [the Japanese] is a managing style that focuses on a strong company philosophy, a distinct corporate culture, long-range staff development and consensus decision-making…’
Ouchi demonstrates that results in lower turn-over, increased job commitment, and dramatically higher productivity.
The working environment is important, family, traditions, culture and what he calls social-institutions, all play a part.
Holding all that together is a management style that creates a high level of confidence in the workforce. The assumption that they will be participating in the decisions of the organisation.
Theory Z tells of creating a workforce that has a loyalty to the organisation and an expectation that people will stay for an entire career. Employees will be trained and promoted into high management and will be successful because they know more about the organisation than anyone else.
In many respects, that’s the NHS. People have careers for life but the NHS doesn’t have much of a history of staff involvement and history tells us, training budgets are the first to get burned.
At least it didn’t until Covid came along and shoved boards into the background and pushed the front-line, front and centre.
In the NHS, the Z ingredients are all there; loyalty, a career structure, training, opportunity, a sense of belonging, teamwork, purpose and now, if we want it... a fresh start.
The NHS isn’t a business. Isn’t a Japanese car factory but it does have a lot of people. Can it learn the painful lessons that nations have had to learn and failing businesses had to change, to catch up?
How people are treated, involved, engaged and listened to, will be the factors that will determine how the Service recovers from the rigours of the pandemic and copes with the post-Covid challenges of the months to come.
All revolutions have to start somewhere, why not here, on a Monday?
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