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Short History of Front Line Responsibility

Frontline decision making responsibility has always been highly motivating and extremely efficient. It is little used because most leaders priority is control, believing their ideas alone are responsibility for efficiency. Today's fast changing technology is forcing the adoption of worker responsibility. Throughout history, worker responsibility was implemented when efficiency had priority over control.

West of the Mississippi River, during the 1800s, people and their life style were different from those in the east. People were highly independent, stubborn, self-confident, strong-willed, worked hard, and most had little or no formal education. They would not tolerate abusive work environments that were common in the east.

In California, during the 1850s gold rush, work habits from two different continents collided. The Chinese brought frontline responsibility leadership to California while control leadership came from the east. The Chinese were so efficient that laws were passed that made it illegal for them to seek jobs or enter into businesses that Americans wanted. For Americans, control was more important than efficiency, whereas, Chinese considered efficiency to be more important than control. The Chinese then entered businesses that Americans reject such as laundry service. This is why Chinese are associated with the term "Chinese Laundry." In the gold fields, the Chinese reopened gold mines that were abandon by the Americans and made them profitable. Even under restricted conditions, Chinese organization methods could out produce the American worker.

1800s Railroad Construction

10 miles of track laid in one day.In 1864, the Central Pacific Railroad Company was pushing construction of the railroad from Sacramento California into the Sierra Mountains. Someone at the Central Pacific noticed the efficient work habits of Chinese. It was obvious that Chinese ingenuity could do the impossible, so the company decided to experiment with a Chinese construction crew. Company managers also did something unheard of by American managers, they adapted the worker responsibility style of the Chinese, giving full control of the project to frontline work teams. As a result, track laying increased until it reached a record ten miles in one day, a record that still stands today. The worker responsibility concept was so successful, most railroad construction companies adapted it. (This is not true for the operation of the railroads where the desire for power and control came roaring back. With high profit margins, control and abuse was affordable.)

Why did frontline responsibility system work? First, the railroad owners wanted to get the job done, there was no profit until the trains were running. Second, leaders had to overcome their own social prejudice related to social class and not allow it to influence decisions. Leaders asking workers for information or advice, increases the intensity of motivation. Opportunity to rise through the ranks is motivating and inspires others to follow.

In the eastern industrial complex, frontline responsibility concept was foreign. It was socially unacceptable for an engineer to ask a frontline worker for advice. (This attitude is still true today) The contrast between east and west leadership methods became visible during the construction of the Panama Canal, one of the manmade wonders of the world.

1904 - The Panama Canal

Gatun Locks, Panama Canal John Wallace was the first chief engineer of the Panama Canal. He developed his engineering and management techniques in the eastern railroads and was a member of many engineering societies. His leadership style was by control. In Panama, his eastern leadership methods worked against him. His attitude, "workers needs are of little concern to the company or the project. Workers are to be treated as machines."

In the eastern states there were ten men waiting to be hired for every job. Under abusive conditions, the work force could be maintained and workers could survive. Not in Panama! Because of abusive living and working conditions, workers died by the thousands and there was no one to take their place. In Panama it became obvious Mr. Wallace knew nothing about leadership associated with motivation and efficiency. After one year, he threw in the towel. He blamed his failure on lack of money, not leadership.

John F. Stevens became the second chief engineer. His formal education was limited to grade school and he did not belong to impressive engineering societies. He came from western railroad construction camps where work teams were now the norm. In the western construction camps, worker turnover was lost productive time and finding replacements was extremely costly. Mr. Stevens learned how to motivate and maintain worker loyalty by treating workers as valuable asset.

The type of people who came to Panama were the same type that ventured west of the Mississippi River, highly independent, self-confident, stubborn, strong-willed, hard working. Stevens knew how to organized work environments that energized and motivated this type of worker. The Panama Canal was completed as scheduled and under budget.

When I was hired by the Panama Canal Company in 1963, worker responsibility, installed by John F. Stevens, was still in place. When I retired and moved back to the States, I discovered that American companies are trying to implement frontline responsibility programs. These programs were similar to what I had worked under most of my adult life and what the Panama Canal Company has been using for almost a hundred years. Responsibility has always been highly efficient. 

If responsibility leadership is so efficient, why are not more companies using it? Answer: Most leaders do not want to give up control. Control is job security and/or a feeling of importance. The typical CEO will let a company go bankrupt before trusting others with responsibility he thinks should be his.

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