Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Bring Your Dog to the Vet, Stop for a Hamburger on the Way Home

A long time ago at a company meeting I tried to say something positive about productivity.  The revenue generated by each person in the company had grown dramatically over the past few years and I wanted people to know how much we valued their efforts.

In doing so, I made two mistakes.

First, in general terms, we’re all in favor of increased productivity.  In many ways our economic well-being depends on it.  However, what’s admired generally is not necessarily treasured individually, because productivity writ small often means that the value I’m providing you is growing faster than what you’re paying me.   Increased productivity down in the trenches feels like you owe me.

Second, I naively used the word “headcount” during that fateful employee meeting, as in “Our revenue per headcount has skyrocketed in the last 18 months.”  Headcount is a perfectly ordinary word that helps measure labor.  If you work 40 hours a week and I work 20 and someone else works 10, then it's easier to say that we have “1.75 heads” than we have “1.75 equivalent people.”

However, one person’s ordinary measurement is another’s insult.  A few minutes after the meeting a group of employees had gathered in my office to say they were hurt by being referred to as “headcount.”  I explained why I used the term, apologized, and removed it from my public vocabulary.

I know what the problem is, and it’s real: Once we turn something into a unit of measure, especially a unit of productivity, we devalue it.  Sometimes it loses its humanness.  Sometimes it loses its soul.

There was a good piece recently in the New York Times Review of Books about animal rights literature where I learned a new term: speciesism.  In simple terms, it means we value certain species of animals, like our pet cats and dogs, to the point where they become part of the family.  Meanwhile, other equally sentient animals--meaning creatures that can experience pleasure and comfort and fear and pain every bit as much as our cats and dogs--are treated brutally on our farms and in our slaughterhouses.  It’s discrimination based on species.

I bring my dog to the vet and on the way home stop for a hamburger.

What happens to cows?  They become heads of cattle.  Units of measurement.  And pigs?  Pork bellies.  They get traded on a commodities exchange.

If the cows could get together and visit the farmer who just gave the speech about productivity, they’d probably tell him that they’d really rather be referred to as Bossie and Elsie and not “heads of cattle.”  Just look up “head of cattle” on Google and you’ll see questions like “How many head of cattle can you have on an acre of land?”  That sounds an awful lot like a unit of production to me, and an animal that’s just lost its soul.

The great blight on America was slavery, when human beings were measured in terms of their productive value.  Even Jefferson wrote ugly when he realized he could enhance his wealth by having his slaves reproduce rather that acquiring new ones.  "[A] woman who brings a child every two years is more profitable than the best man on the farm."  That’s Jefferson applying a make vs. buy decision to human beings.  That’s a Founding Father illustrating vividly that turning  living creatures into units of production does as much to debase the  measurer as the measuree.

It’s Jefferson’s unintended gift to a world in which we measure everything.  We possess dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of sensors for every person in America.  A recent McKinsey study concluded that data being generated globally increases by 40 percent annually.  All that data encourages us to measure stuff and make it better.  Be more efficient.  Raise our productivity.  Increase the yield on our head of cattle.  Get more pork bellies for our dollar.  Improve our revenue per headcount, as it were.

It reinforces why “headcount” was so offensive all those years ago.  It also helps me understand why our youngest daughter is an avowed vegetarian.  Two good lessons, I think, to start the new year.