The general public view is that labour and management are on opposite sides and at odds with each other in trying to improve an organisation’s performance, whether in private industry or in the public sector. This view sees management struggling with employees and the unions to cut costs, to improve quality and to improve service delivery.
Examination of the top performing organisations in the world destroys this picture. Instead the evidence plainly demonstrates that management, unions and employees share an interest in producing high levels of performance, and that on a sustained basis much better performance results are achieved if they work together collaboratively as partners in the effort to achieve their objectives and success. Like an Olympic racing eight, peak performance is produced when all the rowers are fully synchronised in their efforts and at one with each other.
These world class high performance organisations understand that their performance is achieved by their employees. The world’s greatest technology or idea is no better than the people who use it. So these top organisations are built around engaging, motivating, developing and caring for their employees who in turn use their judgment and discretionary effort to solve problems and deliver results that exceed the expectations of their customers, continuously improving their performance to keep up with the ever changing world and increasing pressures of the market and demands of the public.
This cannot be done in adversarial, command and control organisations where the people who do the work and deliver the services have little information about what is being done and why, are not fully trained in their jobs and educated about the business at hand, are not listened to, and are not empowered to solve problems. If employees are not empowered to use their judgment and discretionary effort, or are treated in a way that they don’t want to, then no organisation can achieve any better than average performance for a sustained period of time.
The world class organisations all understand this and, therefore build their processes structures, systems, and culture to maximise employee commitment, employee skills and development, employee voice, employee understanding of the business, employee engagement, and employee empowerment. Management’s role is to help the employees to succeed rather than to tell them what to do. The unions are partners in the effort, making certain the voices of the employees are heard, and that everyone is treated fairly, but are at the table helping to solve the challenges of the organisation and to achieve success just as much as management.
No organisation is perfect, but the concepts articulated here are not hypothetical. Leading performing organisations live this way. Look at Southwest Airlines in North America, the only airline in the world to be profitable every year since 1973; one of three airlines in the world to have made money between September 12, 2001 and September 11, 2002; the top rated airline in North America on all public service measures. It is also the most densely unionised airline in the USA, and pays top wages and benefits.
Or look at Kaiser Permanente a fully integrated healthcare organisation in the USA with 8.7 million people patients; it operates much as a national healthcare service does in other countries. It is the worldwide benchmark for the British, Canadian and Australian health services. It delivers enormously better patient outcomes at half the patient cost of the British system. It is the number one health care organisation in every market in which it operates. Yet 16 years ago it was on the verge of bankruptcy and at war with its 29 local unions. At that time instead of a fight to the death the company and union formed a Labor-Management Partnership that turned around the company to make it the number one health delivery organisation in the world all through collaboration and engagement top to bottom with the unions as partners every step of the way.
So the idea that to cut costs, or produce high performance requires defeating the unions and squeezing more out of the employees is simply factually wrong. Maybe in the short run, gains can be made, but sustained high performance cannot be achieved through an adversarial process. It can only be achieved by engaging the workforce and the union to change the culture of the organisation.