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Jamaica moves…slowly

Henry J
Lewis

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

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Productivity is never an accident. It is always the result of a commitment to excellence, intelligent planning, and focused effort. — Paul J Meyer

Two weeks ago I was having a light chat with a workman on the campus of the University of Technology, Jamaica; he was one of many workmen on the campus working on several projects.

I commended him for the work he was doing and enquired of a timeline for completion. He said there was a lot more to be done, but said it was the boss that deals with schedules. Close to the end of our conversation a colleague of mine stopped and beckoned to me as if to say, “When you're finished.” My assessment of her non-verbal cue was correct, she gently said, “I want to say something to you when you are finished.” I bade the workman goodbye and walk across to my colleague. She commented on the work underway on campus but was not impressed at the pace at which things were moving. She pointed in the direction of some other workmen and said, “Look, look how many of them just sitting around just doing nothing.” She added, “That why I like the Chinese, they work day and night until the work is finished.”

She then began to relay an experience she had when she studied overseas: “As part of my practicum experience I had to work in a food establishment, and my colleagues couldn't understand why I was working so slow.” When I looked around I realised I was indeed slow on the job, but I quickly adjusted and, before long, I was as fast as they were.” It was at that point she said, “One of these days you should write an article about why people in Jamaica work so slow. Employees who work at a snail's pace can frustrate their colleagues as well as their customers. Slow work can slow down productivity, making it difficult for employers to keep up with business demands.”

Jamaica does move, but slowly.

You see it everywhere; slow service at cashiers, on construction sites, waiters, and even at some fast-food establishments. Have you ever gone somewhere in Jamaica waiting for service and wish that the customer service personnel would go faster? I once stood in an 'express line' in a supermarket and as I endured the wait I wondered when are we going to understand that express means quick and efficient.

Why are we so slow? Is it a culture of slowness? Could it be the tools we are given to work with make us slower than others? Sometimes a slow computer and software can slow down the pace of work if we work with computers. The body language of the slow worker is always the same. It's as if they are saying, “You have to wait, I am in charge, nobody is paying me to go faster.” Is it all about pay though, or is there something deeper in our culture that causes us to move slowly at work.

I am not for one moment equating speed with quality, but many people, like my colleague, believe that we can do a more efficient job if we increase our pace at work.

I am not even going to address the vexed issue of the slow pace of our decision-making at work or our paralysis of implementation. In another article, I will thoroughly ventilate that issue. A company's value is the quick and effective decisions it makes and executes. Research has shown that there is a link between productivity and quick decision-making. However, to increase productivity is not only about the speed at which we work, it is about how we get work done; it is about the tools for work, the process (simple and clear) and the pace. By focusing on the process, rethinking the way the work gets done, and redesigning and improving the flow of activities, workers will be more likely to produce results.

Take a look at the ant, how does something with such a tiny brain engineer impressive structures? Without a blueprint (so we might think) or a leader (so it appears), thousands of ants move specks of dirt, create a sophisticated, sponge-like structure with parallel levels connected by a network of tunnels. Some ant species even build living structures out of their bodies — army ants and fire ants in Central and South America, they say, assemble themselves into bridges that smooth their path on foraging expeditions and certain types of fire ants cluster into makeshift rafts to escape floods.

“Take a lesson from the ants, you lazybones. Learn from their ways and become wise! Though they have no prince or governor, or ruler to make them work, they labour hard all summer, gathering food for the winter. But you, lazybones, how long will you sleep? When will you wake up? A little extra sleep, a little more slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, then poverty will pounce on you like a bandit; scarcity will attack you like an armed robber.” Proverb 6:6-11 NLT.

The ants are arguably one of the most industrious creatures. Ants are hard-working, patient and organised, their innovativeness, business-like operations, and their complex social structures have led me to believe that if we take some lessons from them we may increase Jamaica's productivity a hundred-fold.

The plantation society and the ant

A friend of mine circulated this some months ago. When I read it I immediately thought of features of the plantation during slavery:

Every day a small ant arrived at work very early and starts work immediately. She produces a lot and was happy. The chief, a lion, was surprised to see that the ant was working without supervision. He thought if the ant can produce so much without supervision, wouldn't she produce even more if she had a supervisor. So he recruited a cockroach who had extensive experience as a supervisor and who was famous for writing excellent reports. The cockroach's first decision was to set up a clock in attendance system. He also needed a secretary to help him write and type his reports. And he recruited a spider, who managed the archives and monitored all phone calls. The lion was delighted with the cockroach's reports and asked him to produce graphs to describe production rates and to analyse trends so that they could use them for presentation at board meetings. So the coach roach had to buy a new computer and a laser printer and recruited a fly to manage the IT department.

The ant who had once been so productive and relaxed hated this new plethora of paperwork and meetings which used up most of her time. The lion concluded that it was high time to nominate a person in charge of the department where the ant worked. The position was given to the cicada, whose first decision was to buy a carpet and an ergonomic chair for his office. The new person in charge, the cicada, also needed a computer and a personal assistant, whom he brought from his previous department to help him prepare a work and budget control strategic optimization plan. The department in which the ant works is now a sad place, where nobody laughs anymore, and everybody has become upset.

It was at that time the cicada convinced the boss, the lion, of the absolute necessity to start a climatic study of the environment. So he recruited the owl, a prestigious and renowned consultant, to carry out an audit and suggest solutions. The owl spent three months in the department and came up with an enormous report, in several volumes, that concluded, “The department is overstaffed…”

Guess whom the lion fired first. The ant, of course, because she showed lack of motivation and had a negative attitude. Truth be told we are still living in a plantation society and many 'ants' are fired every day for just being ants.

How must more productive we can be as a nation if we learn to make quicker decisions, work smarter, faster, and more efficiently, like the ant?

Jamaica, let's move 'fasser'!

Henry J Lewis is a lecturer at the University of Technology, Jamaica, School of Humanities and Social Sciences. Send comments to the Observer or hjlewis@utech.edu.jm.


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