Evaluation based on results is not the answer to long working hours

Shinzo Abe, Japan’s Prime Minister, has announced that Japan needs a more flexible working style without the ridiculously long hours that prevent many women from working. This is a very laudable goal and something that Japan will need in the face of a shrinking population and many in the younger generation that seem reluctant to devote their lives to the company. (Typically, the photo accompanying the article about improving working conditions for women shows a committee that consists almost entirely of old men.) In fact, changes are already happening, albeit very slowly. When I started working in Japan 14 years ago many colleagues came into work on Saturdays and nearly all stayed very late. Many still stay fairly late but the company has prohibited Saturday working and is putting limits on overtime.

What really worried me in the Yomiuri article though was the quote:

“I would like you to investigate a framework for a new working-hours system that befits work styles evaluated based on results, not time,” Abe said at the meeting.

This sounds like Abe wants to replace one dysfunctional system with a different but equally dysfunctional one. A shift from the bureaucratic nightmare described by Northcote C. Parkinson to one based on industrial age thinking.

The Yomiuri article hints at the problem by describing the “entrenched system of long working hours suppressing productivity” and suggests limiting working hours as the solution. However, the problem is in the working culture that equates dedication to hours worked and working harder as the means to achieve more. Changing this will be harder than just limiting overtime. Which is probably where the focus on results comes from, companies worried about their revenue probably want that to ensure nothing actually changes.

The suggestion in the article is that employees could work whatever hours they like so long as they achive the results. This sounds remarkably like management by objectives which is strange from a country that so admired W. Edwards Demming who had “Eliminate managemement by objective” as one of his 14 points for running a company. The problems with this approach are legion. It discourages teamwork and it puts the focus on the individual instead of the system as the source of productivity. It also assumes that it is actually meaningful to measure “results” or productivity at an individual level.

To improve productivity it is necessary focus on the system. Ironically it is Japanese companies such as Toyota that have shown the world what can be achieved by doing this. Yet Abe’s statement demonstrates that this is an exception, even in Japan rather than the norm. I see this problem daily at my own workplace. Long working hours are considered normal, this gives no incentive to actually improve the working practice since you are going to be in the office anyway. And even when there is a desire to improve the system everyone is so busy dealing with what John Seddon calls ‘failure demand’ that there is no time to introduce improvements.

From the perspective of software development this means that developers are so busy debugging the code that they have no time to consider how those bugs got there in the first place and what changes they could make to prevent them. “We don’t have time to do unit testing or code review”. It is very hard for them to change the system, so simultaneously making them responsible for their results while limiting the only thing that they control, their working hours, is both demotivating and unfair.

Update: A nice article from Vangard Consulting puts the case against “management by results” in the health care sector very clearly:

Wherever management by results exists so too does the failure to accurately understand and sustainably solve systemic problems. This is in the nature of management by results because:

  1. It wrongly assumes that performance can be adequately described by a system of measurement; and
  2. It holds people and organisations to account for the fictions that this creates.
David Dibben
David Dibben
Software developer of electromagnetic simulation systems