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Lazy Jamaican companies

Published:Sunday | August 21, 2011 | 12:00 AM
Francis Wade, Contributor

In the past six months, a handful of interactions with the tax department's customer service line have left me stunned. It's obvious that a profound transformation is under way.

Here's what I observed:

1) Friday's call in the middle of the day was picked up on the first ring;

2) The tone of the agent was clear, helpful and professional - even 'perky';

3) I felt a sense of regret when I was directed to call another department in the same ministry.

I told the agent as much. "If you transfer me to somewhere else, how can I expect to get the same level of service?" I protested. After we both laughed, I went on: "You people are mashing up the place with this new standard!"

I wasn't laughing a few minutes later when, after five rings, someone picked up at the other department. Within seconds, I recognised the familiar drone of untransformed servitude that made me feel instantly tired and resentful. I recovered my spirits, as we all must, in order to get my business done; but it led me to think:

Why hasn't the transformation so evident in one department not infected another one in the same ministry?

There are many answers, but I'm reminded of the saying: 'You never know how lazy a worker sitting under a tree really is until you have spent a day doing his job in the sun.'

This particular ethos flies in the face of the can-do attitude that is often associated with Americans, and might occur because of the peculiar way in which British owners underdeveloped Jamaican companies.

A few weeks ago, I visited a restaurant in which the owner/ cashier was supervising a waiter, who, in turn, was charged with dishing food into containers for take-out customers. The line grew as the server fell behind doing other tasks, idling the register. After a long delay, the cashier got up, but instead of serving food into empty containers, she stuck a head in the kitchen and shouted at her employees: "Get moving!" I walked out.

vast separation

This owner was doing exactly what the British architects of the Jamaican workplace did for centuries. They set up and maintained a clear and vast separation between those who gave instructions and those who followed them. Or in other words: 'Do what I say, but don't follow what I do'.

Workplace slavery, of course, was the worst example. Not a single plantation owner knew what it was like to be a slave, and to work under the constant threat of random violence. Nor were they interested in getting anywhere close to the experience.

While there are good moral reasons to close the gap, we can find practical motives that have everything to do with making profits.

Take the case of a human resource manager working to change the values and attitudes of 300 employees. Before embarking on an ambitious campaign, he might do well to spend a year figuring out how to change a single value or attitude of his own. Just one.

He may discover that even with his years of training and experience, it is quite hard to change something that's vaguely defined, impossible to measure and invisible to the eye. The programme might have to be replaced in favour of something practical that might succeed.

Recent research shows that it takes hard work to find the specific behaviours that produce business results, especially when technology is changing rapidly. The marketing manager who promotes social networking in all its forms, but never gets around to opening up a Twitter or Facebook account is one who is blindly hoping that someone else will do the heavy lifting. She has no idea how she retards the team's progress, robbing it of valuable input and first-hand knowledge.

I imagine that some leaders in our government are stuck; they don't know how to translate these goals into observable behaviours, and interventions. Luckily, new resources like 'action mapping' can help close the gap between those who do, and those who are paid to 'not do'.

Francis Wade is a management consultant at Framework Consulting who Facebooks, tweets, and