The Men in Grey in business world: Why a focus on efficiency and optimization gets in the way of transformation
In Michael Ende’s novel “Momo”, the men in grey are a metaphor for the loss of ease and joy of life, which are essential for progress and development. Due to an exaggerated emphasis on efficiency and process optimization, we recognize similar phenomena in our modern business world: instead of creating real added value, we experience more and more tasks, overflowing calendars, overtime, and general exhaustion – in other words: high rotation in idle – despite a focus on optimizing “operational excellence”.
It seems that the time thieves actually exist. “No time” is the most common response, when asked why the real issues are not being addressed with the seriousness they deserve. At first, just like in the novel, the men in grey sound “reasonable” and bring amazing economic results in the short term. No sooner do you have your time savings than they are forgotten and an inexplicable chill remains. The gray gentlemen in the narrative are symbolic of the pitfalls of a one-sided focus on efficiency and optimization because they often neglect human relationships, creativity, and further development.
Lean management and CIP (continuous improvement processes) have dominated business life in recent decades. The spirit of the times shows us that this phase is coming to an end. We feel that “business as usual” will not help us anymore. Although continuous improvement of the existing is and remains enormously crucial for competitiveness, it should not be in the foreground because it gets in the way of true renewal. Instead of asking how the existing can be made better, it is much more a matter of reflecting on whether what you are doing is the right thing at all or whether a completely new approach is needed.
A guide that is very personal to me
People are not machines, and our organizations are complex systems in which individual competence, independent thinking, participation, synergies and co-creation are the central elements. Applied correctly, technology, automation and digitization facilitate collaboration.
It takes a paradigm shift to be truly successful and not just caught in the grind of higher-faster-further. I would like to encourage us to learn from the lessons of Momo to bring about a profound change in the world of work and bring back to the forefront the importance of real results, further development and co-creation. I think it’s time to rethink our focus on efficiency and process optimization and instead embrace the changes we need to make. This is the only way to free ourselves from the shackles of time thieves in business and create a sustainably successful future.
I think you just have to listen to him, even when he's not singing.
For half a year the canary does not make a sound. Momo sits down with him and he starts to sing.
How often does it happen that we only listen to those who are loud. How often are the people who don’t use their voices the ones who matter?
No time for human togetherness
Lean management and continuous improvement process (CIP) are management concepts that aim to minimize waste and inefficiency. In the novel, the time of simply being together is considered waste. But is it still responsible today to use this way of looking at things as the sole management mindset?
In my everyday life, the desire for uncomplicated, explicit and streamlined processes with clear responsibilities (the RACI matrix sends its regards) is still very strong, although an overly stringent division of labor is alienating us more and more. In the complexity of today’s working world, it is no longer possible to define everything. Instead of strengthening ownership and a sense of responsibility, this way of thinking tends to lead us to withdraw into the process and our own realm, preferring to be cautious before tackling things ourselves.
The inappropriate focus on processes
People love to solve problems. In “Operational Excellence” it is often suggested that there are no more problems that require some tinkering. That problems are bad, and you just have to put in some effort to overcome “challenges”. This usually leaves you alone with your problem until you just accept it and don’t care anymore. To courageously tackle the big issues, you need a sense of belonging and self-efficacy.
In the story, the men in grey create a culture where people focus on their own isolated success. Momo’s friends experience a focus on solving their own agenda, their own tasks. There is simply no time for the problems of others.
Sense of belonging as an essential success factor
In most companies, there is a strong process orientation, a focus on one’s own defined area of responsibility, instead of a focus on collaboration. People concentrate on their own tasks and the exchange is limited (if at all) to the mutual exchange of information or, in the best case, interface coordination. For many, the private conversation during lunch break is the only relevant interpersonal encounter. If the optimized process has priority, and not the common task of generating real added value, there is little room for human relationships. If the sequence of tasks is too structured, there is no longer any reason to talk to each other and alienation is the result.
However, nothing strengthens a sense of belonging like solving collective problems. Trust is built by addressing different perspectives, and overcoming conflict. This requires a deep understanding of the issues, shared goals, personal reflection, and deep listening.
No time for reflection
Momo encourages us to create opportunities where new perspectives are playfully explored. Let’s ask ourselves: Are we not only doing what we do right (efficiency), but doing the right thing? The answer requires space for reflection and critical questioning of our processes and decisions. It’s not just about the how, but also the “what” and “why.” Does what we are doing still fit with the overall goals? What guidelines do changing conditions give us? Which values do we want to promote? Do we have the appropriate resources and competencies for the tasks ahead of us?
Agility provides us with many tools. Retrospectives are an essential part of all agile frameworks. Retrospectives do not question the result and the product quality, but the way of working together, which patterns of thinking and acting need to be changed and which challenges arise on the way. And yet, the first thing that gets cut is consideration or no time is given to work through the findings.
Momo loves to ask questions and give space to the answers. Asking the right questions is an art and learning this can take time. Answers to difficult questions take time and possibly multiple iterations. This is what the men in grey hate. Momo gains too much power from this, because Momo’s friends love this game of philosophical perspectives to find solutions for their own lives.
No time for togetherness
Only by working together can we master the complexity of the world, create real results and prevent duplication of effort and actionism. When each and every employee recognizes his or her own importance for the company, the roles are lived accordingly. Each role has its own unique competence that is learned and developed. If people feel how their own self-efficacy contributes an important part to the result, they contribute creatively in the sense of the community and take responsibility as a matter of course.
For Momo, every single character is important. Through Momo’s belief in the person, the characters grow beyond themselves. They develop their strengths and independent thinking. Unfortunately, to the chagrin of the gray masters, this makes them less susceptible to the measures and manipulation of the time thieves.
If there is no time to explore one’s role and associated competencies, essential aspects of the role are overlooked. It is easier to list tasks than to delve into the deeper meaning of the role. And how often does time press in onboarding, after all, to get into the prefabricated processes as quickly as possible and to work through the assignments provided there unchecked. The workflows that result from insufficient understanding of the role sooner or later paralyze the entire organization.
No genuine involvement
It’s time to combine both ease and focus and create spaces where the team can playfully explore new perspectives without fear of failure or the pressure to always be efficient.
Repeatedly, I have witnessed how play in the work context has become empty entertainment, amusement without depth. It’s no wonder that employees sometimes feel they’ve been taken for fools. Nothing against climbing gardens, spaghetti towers and bowling evenings. It can be a lot of fun, I just doubt the effect. If a tight agenda and a focus on results are added to this, the purpose is reduced to absurdity. Too often, games and so-called icebreakers serve more of a superficial, detached alibi than enabling emotional connection or exploration. A plaster on the flesh wound. And the impression of being misunderstood, mentally isolated, and associated inner withdrawal with “good face to bad game” intensifies.
The gray masters try to stop creativity and intuition in precisely the same way. They entertain the children, confuse equality with equalization and provide toys en masse. Their toys are empty of content, create no real connection but the hunger for “more”. Amusement without joy and fulfillment, without the feeling of having really accomplished something together, without the pride of having dived through shallows and overcome obstacles together, are symptoms of misunderstood entertainment games, in an otherwise process-optimized rigid world.
The children and adults in Momo’s Amphitheater, on the other hand, are highly focused and confront difficulties. They consciously choose adventures that are thoroughly challenging; no destination is too far. They are willing to make an effort, to stand up for each other, and to immerse themselves fully in the subject matter. They genuinely connect with each other, resolve conflicts and unite perspectives. It is natural for them to involve everyone, accept individual characters as they are, recognize strengths, and commit to the common cause. Their game works without a moderator or motivator, without an entertainer or idea generator. In the atmosphere of Momo’s world, people feel encouraged, children and adults alike, to approach the world in a playful way and discover possibilities associated with it.
Restoring seriousness and weight to play means creating a culture where everyone can and will contribute their ideas and actively participate. A culture in which independent and autonomous individual thinking is encouraged and demanded in order to build thoughts together. Giving employees confidence and room to play is key to realizing the full potential of our organizations. Through playful experimentation, we can find new ways and develop bold ideas in line with the Think Big motto that go beyond conventional thought patterns.
What is Momo's secret?
Momo’s secret is her ability to listen to people and give their time. She helps people to better appreciate their own time and life (i.e. their resources) and to use them wisely and consciously for the benefit of the community.
She takes people as they are, without judgment. She is curious about who these people are and feels deep joy when others develop and are happy. She is at peace with herself and her being. Neither does she try to be someone she is not, nor is she ashamed of who she is.
The gift of deep listening enables her to help others solve their problems and find fulfillment. Through her profound understanding of the meaning of time and her extraordinary empathy, Momo is able to fight the gray masters and save those around her.
More relevant than ever
The story of Momo and the men in grey is more relevant today than ever. In a business world increasingly dominated by efficiency and optimization, we need to focus on the aspects that really drive us forward: Collaboration and togetherness, people at the center, individual competence and independent thinking, participation and the co-creation of value. By breaking away from rigid management mindsets and making room for the new, we can inspire, shake up and encourage to achieve all that is possible when we focus on what matters.
It’s time we muster the courage to say goodbye to the gray masters and their sole focus on efficiency and process optimization. Let’s set bold goals together, generate real added value, create spaces for human relationships and creative freedom, and together shape a better future for all.
By creating spaces for new perspectives and bringing human relationships back to the forefront, we can realize the full potential of our organizations and shape a better future for all.
Let’s be inspired by Momo. With lightness, depth and true joy.
Disclaimer: My love for Lean
I accompany many “Lean Transformations” and am convinced of the approaches of Lean Management. There are many areas where the validity is undisputed. Depending on the maturity level and current challenges, Lean principles can be very important.
My main point here was to show that in general there is a need for more than just one management approach.
Shifting paradigms also means trusting ourselves to question the things that have made us successful so far and to look at what will help us in the future and not being stuck in what is in front of us right now.
So, no hard feelings 😉
Ownership and a sense of responsibility
The path is not always easy and yet all too human. And as the saying goes, the journey is the destination.
In responsibility lies the ability to respond to a given situation.