I recently accepted a new office in a volunteer organization.  As part of the introduction to the position, I learned of a report I was expected to compile.  The report was frustrating on a couple of levels.  First, it would not only take a considerable amount of my time to prepare, but it also was going to require that I take the time of other volunteers to gather the necessary information.  While that was bad, what really bothered me was that I didn’t see how the report was being used to benefit the goals of the organization. 

I asked the volunteer to whom the report was to be sent what purpose it served. He didn’t reply, and I didn't prepare the report. (I discovered a long time ago that volunteers rarely get fired.)

 My reaction caused me to reflect on what I'd have done had this been part of a regular job.  I suppose, if my paycheck depended upon it (and being a wimp), I would have filled out the report.  On the other hand, I'm not sure that I would have prepared the report with the thoroughness that I would have if I had believed it to be significant. 

 I’ve always had a problem with that type of thing. Even in high school, if I didn’t see how I was going to use what they were trying to teach me, I had a hard time applying myself. Believe it or not, I really struggled in my Latin class.

 My experience indicates that I’m not the only one that feels this way. Most people will do a better job if they know why they’re doing what you want.  Through the years, I’ve found most people want to do a good job. On the other hand, I’ve also found most people don’t want to do unnecessary work. That being the case, it’s only natural that if employees don’t know why their doing things the way they’re told to do them, they’ll look for ways of doing them that means less work. Time after time when I found something not being done properly, explaining why led to an immediate improvement.

 There are two caveats to this. The first is that if you don’t know why, you have to be willing to allow your people to do some experimentation. Let them try what they want, but make sure they do it in a way that you’ll know the results. The second caveat is that, unfortunately, there are those employees that don’t care about doing a good job. If you’ve explained how and you’re sure they know why and it still doesn't get done right, it’s time to start looking into a replacement.

 Those caveats don’t come into play very often. Most of the time making sure the why is known will take care of the problems. In fact, I even remember one time when I didn’t even know what wasn’t being done properly, but explaining why took care of the problem. I was experiencing a quality problem that I could trace back to a specific time of the day. Of course, it didn’t happen every day, only almost every day. I made a particular effort to study what everyone was doing at that time, but I couldn’t find anything being done wrong. I watched and watched, didn't see anything, and the problem kept happening.

 Finally, in frustration, I called the entire crew to my office. I showed them what was happening to the quality at that time and asked them to tell me what was being done differently. Of course, there was no response. After a few moments of embarrassing silence, I said that since they were the people working with the process they’d be the ones most likely to see what was causing the problem and that I’d appreciate them letting me know what they saw. Of course, I assured them there would be no recriminations.

 The problem never happened again! To this day, I don’t know who was doing what, but once they found out why they shouldn’t be doing it, they stopped. While I was happy to have the problem solved, I'm still disappointed that they didn’t trust me enough to tell me what they were doing.  I guess the important thing is that once they knew why they changed.

 I’m not sure who Carl C. Wood is, but I read a quote attributed to him that I’ve liked. It is, “The person who knows how will always have a job. But the person who knows why will be the boss.” After having thought about it, knowing why may have made you boss, but if you want to get it done right, you’d better make sure that everyone knows why!

Return to Management Essays Page