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Making the case against adapting

By: Barry Stuart

November 9, 2012

In case you have been living under a rock for the last five years, times are tough. We have seen our 401(k)’s decimated, colleagues “downsized” and operating budgets slashed. We have canceled vacations, sent our children to public schools and driven our cars a couple years longer than planned. We have been forced to adapt to a new reality.

While the economy will get better, the most lasting damage may come from a trait that too many organizations have turned to during the recession: a willingness to put organizational character on hold.

Apple Inc. is considered one for the most successful companies in the world today. We have watched as the poor working conditions, underage employees and worker suicides at Foxconn have unfolded in the press, much to Apple’s embarrassment.

I find it interesting that one of the solutions to the suicides at Foxconn was putting nets around the top perimeters of Foxconn buildings. What is phase two? Larger nets? Perhaps lower buildings?

You have to wonder what really drives these abuses. Does Foxconn shoulder total responsibility? Are Apple, Hewlett-Packard Co., Dell Inc. and others, who focus on the lowest-cost supplier, responsible? Is it the ultimate consumer who considers only the “cool factor” of newest product to blame?

The reality is we are all to blame and, more importantly, we are all part of the solution.

You don’t have to look to China for these abuses. Last year in the United States almost 5,000 people died at work. Most organizations today audit the quality systems of their suppliers. Some go as far as auditing manufacturing practices and controls. Why don’t we check for workplace safety? How is this any less important?

I was discussing safety and repair budgets with the CEO of an injection molding firm recently. In the process of making a case for an increase in funding, I relayed a “near miss” incident that occurred in a plant I had managed earlier in my career. I recounted how one of my best employees almost lost part of his hand because we had deferred an investment in safety equipment until sales improved. The CEO’s response, “wait until you have someone die.” 

Tragically, his statement came from his experience and his economic model. Putting people at risk had become a business decision along with lower wages, reduced benefits and substandard working conditions. He had adapted to current economic conditions; his organization would probably survive. He is not alone.

Charles Darwin was credited with the quote, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

While this applies in the wild, I propose that the characteristic that makes us most human is our ability to know when not to adapt.

Would we risk killing one of our children if our survival depended on it? The answer is obvious. Then why would we put a worker (someone else’s child) at risk if our organization’s survival depended on it?

When it comes to decisions on safety, I would prefer to send an employee home to his family as a result of downsizing than to have to call his family and tell them he will never come home again.

Stuart is an operations consultant with Carbon314. He and his family live in Columbia, S.C.