Harmon on BPM: BPM and Employment

I read an article recently about Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods. Quite a bit of space was given to complaints about the policies that Whole Foods employees fear that Amazon will implement. Workers complained that Amazon was promoting a “order-to-shelf system,” which had apparently begun 3 years ago under Whole Foods management but was being re-emphasized by Amazon. The “system” sought to standardize how food items were moved to shelves. The OTS systems was designed “to make everyone interchangeable” one Whole Foods employee complained “They want us to become robots.” They don’t want to pay someone $15 an hour who knows all about the food, they want to pay someone $10 an hour to do these small tasks and timed duties.” These and other comments made me wonder if most people really understand the world in which we live.

The modern world began around the time Adam Smith began to analyze the production of pins in a French factory. He observed that one man, working alone and making an entire pin – stretching the wire, cutting it, sharpening one end, and welding a head on the other end – could make only a few dozen pins in a day. A team, each handling only one of the tasks, could turn out hundreds. A four team members could turn out many more than four times the pins that each worker could produce on his own. Specialization is one of the keys to productivity and to understanding the modern world.

Henry Ford took the idea further by designing and implementing the moving production line. He designed a car that would be easy to assemble, and lined men up and instructed each to do one specific job. Thus he made it possible to produce an entire car in a single continuous set of activities – and this in turn led to the business of process analysis and improvement.

Some might complain that Whole Foods will seek to increase productivity per worker and then lay off some workers. When the industrial revolution began, around 1775, in England, roughly 80 percent of the workers worked on farms. As the industrial revolution gained momentum, machinery took over farm jobs and workers moved to factories, where, despite complaints about working conditions, they made far more money than they ever had on the farms. At the same time, the price of food fell – since costs are very closely timed to the number of workers required. When the industrial revolution began workers paid over half of their income for food. In a short period of time, food prices fell, wages rose and workers spent less than 20% of their income on food. Today, in England, less than 2% of the people work on farms. To date, each advance in productivity has led to the creation of more new jobs than it has eliminated.

The key to prosperity in the modern world is productivity. By reducing labor, we reduce the cost of goods and services. By reducing costs we make it possible for consumers (workers!) to buy more things with the same salary. And the additional things they choose to buy provide the growth that fuels the expansion of the economy – and the creation of new jobs.

I, personally, think that government owes it to its citizens to facilitate the constant transition that is required by our system. We need extensive education programs, unemployment insurance, and job retraining programs. But providing education and a safety net is no substitute for supporting the growth of productivity. Put the other way, keeping more workers working at jobs that don’t require them means that prices remain higher, which means workers can buy less, and, since there is no demand, new jobs aren’t created.

I feel as much concern as the next guy when I work on a process improvement project that will increase productivity and displace workers, but I also realize that it is necessary.

Taking a longer view, my ideal is that people don’t have to do work at all – that all drudgery can be done by robots – and that people can find better things to do with their time. We seem to be moving in that direction and I welcome it. It will certainly create social problems, given how things are currently organized. Everyone must have enough money to buy the goods and services they need and that our factories produce, or we have trouble. One suggestion is a guaranteed income for all. Whatever scheme is adopted, I am confident that we can solve this problem with appropriate social legislation.

So, let me say it again: Business Process Management is about increasing productivity. The process analyst’s job is to help companies create more and better products, faster, using the minimum labor possible. The future success of our society depends on it.

Paul Harmon

Paul Harmon

Executive Editor and Founder, Business Process Trends In addition to his role as Executive Editor and Founder of Business Process Trends, Paul Harmon is Chief Consultant and Founder of BPTrends Associates, a professional services company providing educational and consulting services to managers interested in understanding and implementing business process change. Paul is a noted consultant, author and analyst concerned with applying new technologies to real-world business problems. He is the author of Business Process Change: A Manager's Guide to Improving, Redesigning, and Automating Processes (2003). He has previously co-authored Developing E-business Systems and Architectures (2001), Understanding UML (1998), and Intelligent Software Systems Development (1993). Mr. Harmon has served as a senior consultant and head of Cutter Consortium's Distributed Architecture practice. Between 1985 and 2000 Mr. Harmon wrote Cutter newsletters, including Expert Systems Strategies, CASE Strategies, and Component Development Strategies. Paul has worked on major process redesign projects with Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Security Pacific, Prudential, and Citibank, among others. He is a member of ISPI and a Certified Performance Technologist. Paul is a widely respected keynote speaker and has developed and delivered workshops and seminars on a wide variety of topics to conferences and major corporations through out the world. Paul lives in Las Vegas. Paul can be reached at pharmon@bptrends.info


  1. I think this issue reveals an unconscious perspective within the BPM community. Process improvement initially tried to empower the front line worker, since they typically knew more about the work than their supervisor. Now we characterize workers as an expense to be minimized. Companies are designed to produce valuable products at a minimal cost; companies are also communities that provide meaning and connection to people. Our focus — even as companies — should be on maximizing the quality of life, both in terms of affordable goods & services as well as meaningful work. The pursuit of profit cannot completely eclipse the concern for the engagement of workers. If companies are profitable but employees are dis-engaged and beaten down, we have failed in the most fundamental way.

    I am not advocating that we keep people employed even if there is no work for them to do. I am advocating for looking at the overall subjective experience of employees beyond their role in a particular work process. Process improvement should free up people for more meaningful activities rather than simply justify their dismissal. Paul seems to suggest “society” needs to take up those issues (training, minimum income, transition services). I think we should incorporate them into BPM work rather than externalize yet one more corporate responsibility.

  2. Jerry,
    Thanks for your comments. I certainly agree that the work environment is an important element in most employee’s lives and its important to make it meaninfgul and enjoyable. Like you, however, I don’t think a business should be run inefficiently — its just leads to failure and then everyone loses their jobs. As for who manages the transition, given our system, it had probably better be government. Otherwise some companies will try to do better for their employees, place themselves at an economic disadvantage, and fail. Better we use corporate taxes and the government to assure everyone gets the help they need to make a transition when one it required.

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