Twenty-twenty marks the 35th anniversary of a remarkable and unfortunately also singular event in my career: In 1985, my employer, United Electric Controls (UE), elected to remove time clocks from the factory.
At the time of this unusual decision, I had already been employed at UE for fourteen years in a variety of office jobs. I worked in a building a couple blocks away from the factory, and “punching the clock” had never been a part of my day. From my first day of employ, my attendance was tracked by exception – sickness, personal time or vacations – pretty much on the honor system. But in 1985, coincidentally around the time I transferred into manufacturing, the idea to remove the time clocks was floated. I weighed in as member of the management team on this idea, but I was pretty much a bystander, a new kid on the block, still unaware of significance of the change.
The proposal raised concerns with many managers and supervisors that some workers would cheat the company by fudging their hours or simply not showing up for work. From factory workers there were suspicions that without the clock they might be coerced to work extra hours without pay. Both of these concerns were, as I understand, the historical reasons for the implementation of time clocks as a common factory practice. Time clocks have been fixtures in factories since the turn the 20th century, installed to provide an objective measure of attendance. They persist today as a management system example of “the way we’ve always done things” as well as a symbol of mutual distrust between management and labor.
Back in 1985, a business owner reflected on the time-clock proposal and listened to the concerns raised by others in the company. Ultimately, he decided, hourly employees should be no less trusted than office workers. (Thanks, Dave.) Forty hours of attendance would be assumed except as noted by each employee. No more double standard: a twenty-year factory employee no longer had to prove he or she was present while an office worker hired last week did not. The most obvious result of this system change was the absence of lines at time-clocks. Subtler yet more significant was the change in working relationships. More of us, less of them. In 1990, United Electric was recognized by the Shingo Prize for Enterprise Excellence, a coveted award based largely on the engagement in continuous improvement by employees, but arguably influenced by a singular management decision made years before. (And, by the way, attendance actually improved.)
Today, whenever I visit factories and witness the stampedes of employees to time clocks and hear the complaints of time lost to waiting in line to punch in out, I wonder why no one questions the practice. On the contrary, in the last 50 years an entire industry has grown up around punching the clock, adding software even to automatically track an employee’s whereabouts as well as his/her attendance.
Is this an improvement or are we, as Shigeo Shingo liked to say, just automating a waste – the eighth waste – and taking mutual distrust to a new level?
A quote from Peter Drucker is ringing in my ears: “There is nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency something that should not be done at all.”
What do you think? Is it about time to reconsider time clocks?
PS Speaking of time, at this particular time of year, myself and my colleagues at GBMP would like to wish everyone a very happy, healthy and bright New Year. We look forward to seeing you, members of our Lean community, at events we sponsor throughout the year – from benchmarking plant tours and Shingo Institute workshops to Lean Certificate programs and our annual Northeast Lean Conference. We are especially excited to be able to offer Systems Design, the newest Shingo Institute workshop, this February at Vibco in Rhode Island. We hope you can join us.