Early Non-Adopters

Michael Metzger

About 14 percent of Zappos’ workforce recently quit. It’s similar to what happened when Ford introduced the assembly line. Many workers abruptly resigned. Ford and Zappos remind us of why it’s sometimes wiser to be an early non-adopter.

An early adopter is an individual or business using a new product or technology before others. This includes individuals who first joined Facebook or Twitter, for example. Now we see Zappos adopting a new business philosophy.

In April, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh declared that the company was getting rid of bosses and putting employees in charge. Zappos is shifting to an approach called Holacracy, where workers decide largely for themselves how to get their work done. There are no more managers. Teams instead work in circle groups. So far, Zappos employees have formed more than 300 circles. But there are some early non-adopters.

A percentage of employees have decided Holacracy is not for them. Last month, Zappos said 210 of its roughly 1,500 employees, about 14 percent, had quit. This is similar to what happened when Henry Ford introduced the assembly line in the U.S.

Assembly lines date from the early 1800s with a man named Mark Isambard Brunel. Dining with the former Secretary to the U.S. Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, in 1798, he got news of the bottleneck in British naval expansion. The Royal Navy required at least 10,000 rigging blocks a year. But the blocks were made by hand so demand had long outstripped supply. It was then, Brunel wrote later, that “the idea for block machinery came to me.”1 He hurried home and devised an assembly line approach.

A century later, Ford had a supply problem. In 1908, groups of two or three men would build a single Model T. Each car bore a distinct “work signature.” In its first full year of production, 1909, about 18,000 Model Ts were built. But no matter how many or how fast the Model Ts were built, demand outstripped supply.

Ford’s solution was the assembly line, an idea he got from Frederick Winslow Taylor, the founding father of modern management. Taylor viewed workers as “oxen” who needed to be managed. (That’s a far cry from what scripture says—that we ought to manage only animals, appetites, and assets. Ford didn’t care about the Bible.) Ford introduced the first moving assembly line in the U.S in 1913.

The time required to assemble a Model T was reduced by 10 hours. The assembly line boosted annual output to over one million cars by 1920. But assembly line work felt dehumanizing to some workers used to “signing” their work. They refused to adopt this approach and resigned. They were early non-adopters.

Henry Ford sensed this might happen, estimating he’d have to replenish his factory ranks with 100 workers by the end of 1913. He missed by a mile—963 workers quit. Ford Motor Company survived because, year after year, more and more workers got used to being treated like animals. The early non-adopters were gone. The remaining workers were habituated, used to the reigning culture of being “managed” in the workplace.

W.L. Gore & Associates Inc., the maker of Gore-Tex fabric, has been trying to break the management culture for many years. It has more than 10,000 employees and annual sales of more than $3 billion but no traditional organizational charts or chain of command. The company is part of a movement of management-free companies. Zappos is part of this movement. But let’s not kid ourselves. Managing people is a hard habit to break. The early non-adopters at Zappos likely cut their teeth in companies that treated them like animals. It’s likely that the 210 who have resigned like the leash.

The lesson is that early adopters are not always wise (devotees of social media might think about that). Early non-adopter Ford workers were wise. Early non-adopter Zappos workers are not. In this case, the difference is in knowing what ought to be managed—and not managed. Otherwise, you can’t appreciate early non-adopters.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

1 Paul Johnson, The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830 (New York, HarperCollins, 1991), p. 576.


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  1. Is it possible that non-adopters are the fruits of poorly managed transition in philosophy ? The intensity of adoption failing to make genuine contact, connection and communication with each employees context.Is the priority each individual managing and reporting on the completion of their own business, that can be co-opted by another, in preference to being enslaved to another by only be able to offer labour ?

  2. Very interesting. I wonder if when in church-work, when congregants are not involved in decision making, that they tend to quit because they don’t like being managed – even tho in reality they may be doing nothing at all. They quit from boredom. I know this happens, and I’ve tried to imagine what it is that the church managers think they’re doing – they think they’re “providing” thru their management but they couldn’t be more inaccurate. This has been on my mind a lot, thanks Mike, parsing the problem the way you have makes a lot of sense.

  3. More than interesting, Dave – disconcerting. As best as I can tell, Spurgeon lead a church (numbering over 20,000) with a staff on one (although he likely had a secretary). No youth, small groups, worship, or executive pastors. No managing the lives of congregants. They were considered adults. I think the modern idea of shepherding looks more like modern management.

  4. It’s embarrassing to think about how the discipleship models that we have often enshrined – and that I promoted but then bucked against – weren’t about training up race horses – they were about managers begetting managers. It’s a weakening of the gene pool. Race horses in the mix can’t be held back – and generally, thankfully, they’re not joining the management pool.

  5. Great post, Mike, but I’d like to pose a related economic problem: cars built on assembly lines (most cars) are way cheaper than cars built by hand (Rolls Royce, for example). Leaving aside for a moment whether cars themselves are a good thing, isn’t the cost of the end product a meaningful consideration? If the assembly line had never been invented (unlikely), cars would be exclusively a super-luxury good, affordable only by the one percent. Like personal jet planes. Although I could argue that THAT would be a good thing, I think most folks would disagree. Thoughts?

  6. David: Yes, there is often a tension between effectiveness and efficiency. Toyota’s assembly line might be closer to what I’m advocating, as workers are free to shut down an entire line at any time if they feel a car is built incorrectly.

    There is little doubt that the industrial age presented a great many challenges to those who want their businesses to align with an accurate assessment of human nature. The information age will present further challenges, but might mitigate previous errors. We will see…

  7. So much to consider here for the modern American Evangelical church. As a non-traditional seminary student, I can say with full confidence that the modern church congregants have habituated into a 30 year old antiquated management model, lead by leadership staff that stifles the Holy Spirit, drives disciples out of institutional gatherings and leaves no room for grassroots initiatives among the ekklesia. Most of the leadership I’ve met is really busy managing the church and study the metrics of those strategies instead of empowering their congregations with the indwelling of Ywhw . “Disconcerting” is spot on Mike. Thank you for working hard.

  8. Size matters, Mike. It’s no coincidence you brought up Gore Tex as an example. Funny, I have heard a number of Evangelical pastors quote Malcolm Gladwell over the years, but never regarding the Gore Tex statistics he cited. Apparently, 150 is the “magic” number for Gore Tex. When the company grows beyond 150 employees, they split, even if it is simply to another building separated only by a parking lot 100 meters away. They feel it is impossible for employees to feel valued and to build community once they break 150. It is based on the historical evidence that tribes and villages (since the dawn of time) have inadvertently followed the same method. How many “members” do most modern Evangelical Churches have?

  9. The reality is that scientific management lasted as long as it took to realise the workers could withdraw their labour and strike.
    A glimpse of the recognition that each worker was actually uniquely designed and able to choose.

  10. So how would this theory work in government? Any thoughts? I get the concept, but its application is harder for me to grasp.

  11. Doug: The government that governs the least governs the best. The government that governs too much is managing people.

    In two upcoming column, I’ll describe how government has sprawled over the last 80 years, in Republican as well as Democrat administrations. Some of this due to Americans framing life in therapeutic categories rather theological.

    One example of the therapeutic: seeking “safe places.” That’s a therapeutic category – not a theological one (c.f., Mr. Beaver straightening out the kids on God being “safe” in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”). Governments claim to offer cradle-to-grave safety (the most recent example is “Life of Julia” – google it). A growing number of people are adopting this view of safety. They’re seeking it. We’ve become habituated to “safe places.” Early non-adopters don’t want to. They’d seek to shrink the reach of government in our lives.

  12. I spent 28 years in the Navy, mostly on submarines. When I first read about GORE-TEX, several years ago, I tried to picture that organizational style working on a submarine at sea. Never managed to figure it out, perhaps that’s why I can’t relate. But it sure seems like a nice idea, conceptually, and it eliminates one complaint: “I can’t stand my boss!”

  13. I’m currently reviewing our management structure and I’m intrigued by these concepts on management. I look forward to the future columns. Is there any literature you would recommend? The big trend in organization management today is 365 feedback and ending “annual performance reviews”. I can see some compatibility between these concepts. My tendency is to move decision making from the top to the point of contact with our “customers”. Taking that from concept to reality within the constraints of our management system is the challenging part, but I’m hopeful its possible at least in part.

  14. Will be intrigued to see how ‘safe places’ are investigated in light of recent news from US with regard church shooting.The concept of an armament in a place of worship is beyond the experience of some parts of the world.

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