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The other day I was on a construction site with some colleagues.  Everyone we saw was working, however, there are critical tasks that haven't been completed.  Every time I tried to steer the focus towards addressing these tasks, I heard all about how busy everyone is.

The same sort of thing happens whenever I call a vendor that's perpetually late.  They're always too busy to deal with me when there's time to resolve an issue.

I've heard people talking about "reactionary" workplaces, I've worked in a few myself.  I'm not sure that's what is really going on.  The workers on that construction site were all earnestly doing their best.  They genuinely thought they knew better, which is why they focused on task Y instead of the scheduled task X.  They're way ahead on tasks that don't matter for today, and way behind on tasks that do.  My colleagues all have tremendous sympathy for these workers, and make endless excuses on their behalf whenever they're behind schedule.

In contrast, we've got an employee who's just slow.  Everything he does takes longer than average.  He's articulate, personable, reliable, and intelligent.  Every client falls in love with him, often to the extent that they directly hire us for repeat work.  He's enormously profitable to the company because he's generating his own revenue stream that's willing to pay higher prices and wait longer for his slow-poke approach.

This guy drives my colleagues crazy because he never looks "busy".  Everyone else is stressed out trying to make their deadlines and stay ahead of the project demands, while this guy's just "coasting" through his working life.

It's my lonesome opinion that the slow poke is the most productive employee we have.  He requires virtually zero overhead and he's easily earning us double the net profit of our next-best worker.  

This got me to thinking about productivity from a different perspective.  See, we can measure the progress of work with a fair degree of accuracy.  The problem as I see it, is that most people don't consider how their work fits into order of operations in the big picture.  If you're not hitting big-picture milestones, you're not making production.  Sometimes, all the other stuff you've completed isn't really relevant to the powers that be.

I see a lot of hard-working people who get fixated on "doing a good job", so they target tasks they feel they can complete without hindrance.  Any effort to call their attention to more pressing issues is an affront to their image of craftsmanship.  There are some very talented people who simply don't see a deadline as a professional standard.  By extension, they are upset when clients fail to appreciate the quality of their work.

The slow guy I mentioned above, always makes his deadlines because his priority is defining what matters most to the client.  As I write this, it occurs to me that we don't measure the effort put into managing logistics and scheduling as part of "production".  The "busy" workers consider all of that to be managements problem.  Once you factor for the cost of additional management plus the inevitable overtime pushes to meet deadlines with the "busy" crews, it becomes obvious why the "slow guy" is so profitable.  

 

 

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This is a well known phenomenon, ancient even, "Tortoise and the Hare" fable or old proverbs, "Slow and Steady wins the race", more recently I THINK, "Hurry slowly." There's a million of them, been around as long as humans have used language is my bet. 

There's a culture of the "boss" wants to see workers working. Nothing strange or ominous about that for sure. However, what happens when the CEO notices a fingerprint on a window and either mentions it or stops and wipes it off him/er self? The receptionist notices. . . (Of course, receptionists see EVERYTHING) and calls janitorial and mentions the Boss is cleaning his own windows! :o Next thing you  know everybody in the company is making sure to keep the windows sparkling. 

Similar if the boss stops by the water cooler and maybe joins in the gossip for a moment or worse, jests about breaks lasting so long. 

Now the guys who keep track of deadlines in accounting mention the boss being less than happy with the long breaks.

Now the department heads hear the boss is unhappy and blames the workers for slacking off and long breaks. And mentions it to . . .

With every iteration the boss's irritation grows and urgency to correct workers slacking off increases pressure on the next level down.

Excreta rolls down hill and gains momentum and speed all the way to the bottom. You end up with a business more worried about looking busy enough than working effectively.

This is an institutional tradition in the military but not without purpose. Troops have to be able to take seemingly senseless pressure so the Mickey Mouse does it's job toughening them up.

Hmmm?

Frosty The Lucky.

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This reminds me of the old military adage, "Amateurs discuss tactics, professionals discuss logistics."  What is sexy and flashy gets attention, particularly from PR types and easily impressed customers while the real grunt work which actually accomplishes things is under appreciated.  Woe be to the enterprise that loses its worker bees.

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I have a single man traditional architectural blacksmith shop. Me the manager confronts this issue with me the laborer all the time. 

During a job I nearly always make a "mistake". This mistake usually leads to the possibility of a minor, but perhaps, a very cool detail. I dont mean a design changing detail, more an esthetics improving detail. And a detail that would not require client approval. The choice is to continue as planned or add a bit of time and tune up the esthetics.

My solution is to bid my jobs "time and material,  not to exceed $X.

The first factor in my decision is always the job deadline. First and foremost the deadline of the job. But as well, how will this affect my next comission.

Most often if I feel I can fulfill the deadline issues, I go for the increase in esthetics and my "not to exceed" loophole allows me to do this at my own expense and for the benefit of the client.

I consider the cost of the change is me choosing to pay for my own continuing education. This esthetic change also is an investment in my future. I consider it a form of advertisement. 

 

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Frosty,

I've met more than a few people who loved to say "slow and steady wins the race" in response to a blown deadline.  The tortoise's "secret" is that he says on track.  When you're slow, there's no "give" in the order of operations.  

 While reading your examples, one of the things that stands out to me is how people will put incredible amounts of physical work into something that's intellectually lazy.  A lot of times it's clearly much more work to painstakingly monitor several "indicators" of hard work, than it is to measure progress on the work.

For example, checking that all the windows are clean, and that nobody's standing at the water-cooler for too long could take all day without generating any beneficial leadership to the workers. 

In contrast, it might take a concerted effort to think through all the necessary criteria to define "success".  However, once it's been defined, both workers and management have a clear set of standards to uphold.  

I think many manager's shy away from this because clear standards leave little room for plausible deny-ability.  "Floating" between bureaucratic necessity, and compassionate leadership allows them greater latitude to cultivate an image independent of their performance.  Every miserable workplace I've ever had was overseen by "floaters".  These people unerringly focus on whatever is "measured" by higher ups, without regard to the underlying intent.

One "management" idea that doesn't get much attention is to challenge the corporate response to mistakes.  There's a lot of wisdom in learning from mistakes.  Very few companies will explain how  mistakes were involved in development of a given policy. If companies actually want workers acting in good faith, they should recognize the firms obligation to respond in kind. 

 

 

 

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6 hours ago, rockstar.esq said:

While reading your examples, one of the things that stands out to me is how people will put incredible amounts of physical work into something that's intellectually lazy.  A lot of times it's clearly much more work to painstakingly monitor several "indicators" of hard work, than it is to measure progress on the work.

This is a prime tenet of the whole "Management theory;" that a person doesn't have to know how to do a job to run it. While true it's only true in a very limited degree in running a job, factory, whatever. One or two professional bean counter and one to double check is usually plenty. However when you have a pyramid of professional managers in an organization their only justification for a paycheck is being a scapegoat for higher so not taking credit for a mistake becomes your skill set. You ensure this by having as many underlings as possible. Humans are resourceful and if you don't have a real job other than to be a target you invent "necessary tasks." 

"Indicator monitor" is a good one won't be long before it's department. Currently news agencies have "fact checkers" and the necessary departments. Used to be a journalist checked facts before turning in a story.

My example of a smudge turning into a company washing windows was an example of, "downhill the bolus rollus." Same thing if the General notices a weed in a path, next thing everybody on base is weeding. It expresses the nature of, "if a little is good a LOT is better" thinking. Natural or not it can severely reduce or stop productivity. Busy busy bees no nectar collecting going on.

Well darn, I was going to respond to your point about managers, responsibility and standards. but . . . DRATS I did already. If you're deeply embedded enough in layers of over and under . . . lings you''re insulated from responsibilities so you avoid mention of standards. Drawing attention is a bad thing in a bureaucracy. The ONLY lesson managers willing learn from are how to avoid being responsible for a mistake. 

There were guys in our office who had two people check reports before they read, and rubber stamped someone else's recommendation and passed it on to the next person who read checked data and signed a sometimes reworded report. 

If a person were to look at public records and do a little calculating they'd discover that the schools that cost so much, spend around 70% on admin and the money going to school and class is dipped into by a number of unions. A teacher in modern America has to hold at least one part time job to stay in the black. During the school year. Alaska has the highest per capita education costs in the country and not long ago Children graduating here were rated 51st in the country. 

Honest evaluation is anathema to a bureaucracy. The more it looks like accountability is looming the more important it is to find a distraction to work on furiously. If you an ugly example I won't mention DC.

Frosty The Lucky.

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16 hours ago, Frosty said:

This is a prime tenet of the whole "Management theory;" that a person doesn't have to know how to do a job to run it.

Good points all around Frosty.  This bit reminded me of an internship I did with a site utilities firm.  The owner required that all employees (except the secretary and his wife) spend at least a month literally working in the trenches.  

Months later I was in the office when the owner was upset about lack of production on a job.  He couldn't understand how the superintendent was onsite every day, yet they'd failed to notice that production had fallen behind.

What I didn't realize then, but do now, is that the site was fifty acres of blowing dust.  They had a single water truck onsite and used it sparingly because the biggest owner complaint was the cost of construction water.   One front end loader tended to two trenches, bringing in the pipe bedding gravel as needed.  Cycle times were increased because the operator couldn't see far enough ahead to safely pick up speed.  The guys in the trench were getting utterly buried in dust with every load so the water truck focused exclusively on the two trenches, not the thirty or so acres of windblown soil leading up to them.

From my time in the field, I remember how featureless the sites were.  The most obvious way to measure progress was to make a mental note of where each track hoe was at the start of the day, so you could see how far it got by days end.  Since the front end loader tended two trenches, you could easily see if one team was working faster than the other.   When visibility dropped to 50', none of that is possible.

The field staff doesn't concern itself with material quantities.  All of that is sorted out for them.  They just keep their heads down and run pipe  from "here" to "there" .  As a result, nobody on the field side knew how to measure their progress in terms of total material.  The crews actually installing the pipe spent very little time looking at plans.  Nobody had much sense of the distances involved, or how the scale of the drawing affects your perspective.  The crew in the trench were probably aware that the pipe bedding tender was running slower than usual, but they were constantly distracted whenever they got hit by the passing water truck.  The crews were working hard, which typically equated to making good production so nobody thought there was a problem.  

With today's knowledge, it's almost funny that the "typical office weenie" objection to fifty acres of blowing dust proves to be the undoing of so much field experience and leadership.  If these guy's had any understanding of the "office" side of their livelihood, they might have made better decisions.  The cost of construction water paled in comparison to the lost productivity.  To say nothing of the significant environmental and health hazards that site was generating.

 

 

 

 

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And in that case the company owner may not have been suggesting they use less water, just expressing surprise how much was needed. And then down hill the bolus rollus. 

Here's another for you. I'll not mention nationality but I've worked with and for a number from this region of the world. Excellent technicians but almost completely insensitive to employees feelings or reality. Very magical thinkers, for instance when I pinned the owner down for the commission we'd agreed on. She owned the service station and I was one of the mechanics, standard was to split the profit on materials sold and a % of labor. I'd learned to keep my own books and had about $300 coming. Well, when confronted she said, "This will make you happy." and handed me a $20 bill. When I exclaimed, "This isn't even CLOSE!" she said, "I could've given you two $10s. this can make you happy."

This seems to be a national culture thing, she was a nice gal as are most of the others of the culture they just seem to be disconnected. If I were to chose one thing to describe the culture it'd be, "Penny wise dollar foolish." 

Oh say: Look hard to find employees that'll work for the least, complain when they can't do the work, let alone turn a profit, so demand they work longer hours for less and come payday complain about how much is on a paycheck.

Ooh, there's the one who started taking months long vacations when the business started operating in the black for the 3rd. or 4th. year. Upon return and taking a look at the books (ignored for about 10 months the last year I worked there) threw a screaming tantrum literally screaming and throwing things. The very next morning I got a call that I was late for work but can only lose one hour if I hurry right in. Nobody'd showed up and the owner had to close up the night before. I stopped by a couple hours later for my last check, I'd loaded up my tools when I left the day before. My tool boxes hitting my pickup truck bed was all the cue the other guys needed, we left our jackets on a shop bench.

That station was under new management within 3 months, Chevron wasn't standing for that level of . . . 

There has to be some distance between owner and operations but there's a balance. Father was an owner operator in his metal spinning shop. If he only put in 70 hrs. it was a slack week, he typically worked 14/7. He was at work by 6:00am and rarely got home before 8:00pm, he might have dinner with us Sunday. His stress levels were through the roof and he made less than working for wages for someone else. 

After I got my driver's license, if I were finished with homework I was expected to drive to the shop after dinner and get in a couple few hours. Before Dad opened a business rather than doing side work in the garage I got paid piece work and did well. Once it was a "real" business that wouldn't fly I had to make hourly and $1.00 was considered generous at the time. It was hardly worth my time. I made more hauling hay for older horse owners but it was a family business so I worked in the shop.

The examples of the folks who's culture remains unmentioned and Dad's are of owners too close to the floor. One who's expectations are unrealistic and another who's too driven by production to manage the business as it should have been.

The other end of the spectrum are the managerial pyramids where activity may be frenetic but production is low, even deferred. Production is muffled by many MANY layers of people who are (from my office) "waiting for enough data won't have to make a decision."

There's a productive and effective middle ground. Enough management to specialize in necessary areas, say: manufacture, purchasing / shipping, marketing, accounting. A certain amount of separation is good; you don't want marketing or accounting running the shop floor for instance. You can't have so much separation there is no connection at all. In both the too large and too small examples neither could self evaluate and self correct for problems. If you're a small private concern you have an auction to pay off creditors. If you're a government you raise taxes and hire more experts. 

Frosty The Lucky.

 

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