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The false choice of Default to action vs. default action

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I saw a Dilbert cartoon today where Dilbert told his boss "You don't go to war with the data you need, you go to war with the data you have."  His boss replied "Did you just make it sound noble to use bad data?"  Dilbert replied "And noble".

This got me thinking about how I often encounter bad business decisions on the part of people who feel they have no choice in the matter.

In my experience, there are two main forms that this takes.  There are the the "default to action" people who equate their need to be "doing something" with a moral imperative to act against a poorly defined obstacle.

The second are the "default action" people who are primarily making decisions on a risk-aversion basis.  For these people, their response will consistently be less about the actual problem, and more about their perception of consequences to them.

 I've worked for many companies where production staff consistently made bad decisions just to get something done because management consistently avoided answering a question just to avoid accountability in case it went wrong.  Both groups felt they "had no choice" because the production people don't get paid to sit around, and the management people know that nobody gets fired for taking too long to make a decision.

The crazy thing to me, is that this entire construct pivots on one serious problem.  Nobody trusts anybody else to cooperate.   

Like most things in life, incentives matter.  If you want better decisions out of your workers, make an effort to measure trust as an indicator of leadership and cooperation.  

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"The fallacy of leadership in business is ... that it exists" 

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Not sure when and where it started, but every college that I know of now has a Risk Management Officer (usually a full time lawyer on staff) who reports directly to the President. I am sure corporations are the same way. Part of why they outsource everything as much as possible. "Oh, they don't work for us. They may all have been here for 5 years, wearing a different company logo shirt ever year when we bid out the contract. But they are not our employees."

Every decision is a possible risk. Every speech, every news release, every official document from every source has to be groomed by a team of handlers . What comes out is a web of weasel words, that are meant to sound good, but can no more be pinned down than nailing jello to a wall. The red tape of risk avoidance and risk aversion culture has a stranglehold on everyone lately.

Finding "Someone (Else) To Blame" seems to be the new normal.

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I lived with this for 30 years employed with the State of AK. 

Either of the production approaches outlined by Rockstar are bad in a decision loop but taken together make bad decisions about the only sure thing going. 

Job priorities for GVT mid and higher management and management is ALL gvts are.

The job priorities go something Like this: 1 Protect your job/position.

There are more than just one but they all revolve around #1

Lastly is, Do the job. Unfortunately all the things between protect and do the job are involved in not looking bad so delegating is WAY high almost as high as not making a decision that can be avoided.

I've asked a question about what to take for a particular job and been told by the guy in charge he is hoping with enough information he won't have to make a decision.  We were the guys who were going to collect or generate the information and he wouldn't take the chance to tell us what information he needed. A geologist engineer and didn't want to make any decisions. 

He was an extreme example but complete risk avoidance wasn't unusual. Another strategy is the delegate blame and shoot the messenger strategies.

The only people who WILL make a decision are the worker bees but . . . 

I can't imagine large companies are any different than government, I believe all operate under the theory that you don't need to know how to do a job to manage the company. 

When you get down to the worker bee level you start to run into the guys who have to DO SOMETHING EVEN IF IT'S WRONG. Believe it or not that was on posters that got hung in shops as in an official directive. There are the guys who equate working HARD with doing a good job. Not DOING a good job but sweating. If you work up a sweat you're ding it right. I worked with a guy that insisted we load drill steel: casing, drill rod, etc. by hand rather than use the forklift. I built the racks to access with the forklift both the storage racks in the sheds AND the racks on the drill rigs.

One of the supervisor's management styles was to not solve problems if possible so his strategy was to shoot the messenger. Call him in the morning, tell him some happy BS then go spend 2 hrs having breakfast, do some shopping or errands until lunch time and don't get back too late to leave early. Working for this guy was insane unfortunately I couldn't do my job without addressing problems, one of which was a fellow who seemed to think it was his duty to make me look bad. Yeah, the look good by making other people look bad strategy. Unfortunately this particular supervisor was particularly susceptible to this so I got to be the whipping boy. 

Well. . . I had a leave request in and literally the Friday before he invited me to services at his church.  I didn't go and the following Friday when I submitted my time slips he informed me he'd given my leave time to someone else and my leave was no longer approved. Then he invited me to attend services at his church again. Hard to list the laws he was violating before we get to regulations, etc. etc.

That was the last time I spoke to him without a recorder in my pocket. I ended up having to carry it all the time because pressure started being applied by mister "make others look bad to look good guy." Eventually that came down to threats and assault so to which mr. manager gave ME a good talking to about how my complaint hurt the other guy's feelings. At the end of which I asked him if attending services at his church might make a difference. Believe it or not he said yes, finally accepting one of his invitations could very well make life easier for me.

That didn't go so well for them. Alaska is a single party consent state, meaning only one person needs to know something is being recorded to constitute legal evidence and is admissible evidence in court, State or Federal. I played that and one other recording for the gentleman in Human Resources, after which he asked if I was going to press charges. I said not if it's suitably resolved. 

Boy did things change, nothing like being faced with career ending evidence unless it's jail time for civil rights violations. He transferred to a different position maybe 2 months later. Mr make others look bad decided to behave. 

Bureaucrats can NOT tolerate accountability, especially if they've become accustomed to not being accountable for more than their time sheets. 

My only regret is not pinning supervisor's ears years earlier. My rep went form worker bee to hornet, don't poke. 

Sorry about the rant but it's hard to live under such intentional mediocracy without it really ticking you off. It's hard to remember without needing to vent a little.

Frosty The Lucky. 

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Frosty, your story reminds me of a "fish out of water" situation I encountered professionally when I worked for a General Contractor.  The company hired on a really friendly older guy who previously worked in management for a subcontractor.  He was supposed to manage all warranty work, plus fleet/tool maintenance.  This guy had over twenty years of experience getting things done in the field.

We had management meetings every couple of weeks where each department had to report on what was going on.  The owner was a very detail oriented person who gauged his follow-up efforts in exponential proportion to weasel wording in your report.  "I don't know" would generate a  managerial air strike.  Your first "um" might elicit a pot-shot about whether or not you knew what you were doing, your second "um" typically resulted in a public show-trial, followed by a lengthy post-meeting reaming to the next standard diameter.  Simply put, this wasn't the sort of boss who allowed half-measures,  or plays for plausible deny-ability.  

Anyhow, this super nice guy who was used to making on-the-fly decisions throughout his career, simply could not see that it was his job to tell subcontractors what and when things needed doing.  He would routinely call a sub related to the warranty issue and politely ask them when they had time to come out and do the repair.  Invariably, the response was that they were all super busy, but they'd call him right back as soon as they knew.  He considered that adequate, and simply let weeks pass without any further action.

On the rare occasion that he actually did get someone out to complete warranty work, the sub doing to repair would  frequently blam the issue on a design shortcoming.  "If we used X instead of Y, this wouldn't fail" sort of thing".  He accepted these excuses, even going so far as to pay the subs to "upgrade" the warranty repair to something completely different from the original contract design.  All without consulting his own company, his client, or the design team.  We're talking about stuff like overhauling entire systems, or replacing a fixture with something that doesn't match.  He was basically a walking lightning rod for liability concerns.

I made several attempts outside the office to explain how he could avoid causing trouble for himself.  He was very gracious, but in the end, he solemnly believed that his good intentions should be sufficient rebuttal to all the liability he generated.  He genuinely believed that it was unfair the owner "just didn't trust him", and couldn't see how his actions created that condition.  It's one of my bigger regrets that I wasn't able to get through to him before he was let go.  He had all the necessary knowledge and experience to go with a wonderful personality, but it all went sideways for him because he lacked perspective.

 

 

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I'm not assertive enough either, I can probably understand him better than you. It's not an excuse though, it doesn't matter how much you know or how well you can do the job, if you won't do it you need a different job. 

It's not so much perspective as personality traits. Mr. shoot the messenger I described above placed higher value on being liked than respected so he rewarded his employees for never telling him about problems, by never keeping track of what they did. If your crews call in the morning lie about what they're doing, spend maybe an hour doing something usually visible for show and little or nothing else. The crews will certainly LIKE the boss but not one respects him/er. Unfortunately Mr. shoot the messenger couldn't tell the difference and the state materials engineer had to review not only his report but everything leading up to it including the field notes and weather reports. 

Why weather? Well, if nobody cares if you DO the job there's no reason to get out of the truck if it rains or there's a cold breeze is there?

I don't know which is worse though, the hands off of everything boss or the micro manager who believes s/he's smarter than the people who wrote the standards. One of the office geologists we were saddled with had the rep with the 2 private companies that let him go for generating more LOSING lawsuits per quarter than the total number generated in the average 2 year period. Exploration geology companies are always settling change of materials lawsuits, nobody can afford to have every foot of a project, sampled / drilled and lab tested, it's all done in representative intervals. My genius however was so smart he KNEW what the lab reports should've been and changed them at will, same for the geologist's field reports. What, the blow counts were under 150/ft at 75'? That's wrong I know the material was at least 500/ft at 75' and would write it up and make engineering recommendations based on his fantasy brilliance.

He was transferred to positions of decreasing responsibility twice and finally ended up "Walking the halls." A Bureaucratic term for a person too useless to give a real job but one they aren't willing or able to fire. 

Large bureaucracies are self trained to avoid responsibility for mistakes which makes terrible choices the norm, non-stop nested mistakes. 

It'll drive a sensible human crazy. Crazy enough to quit for job with a mom and pop operation. My retirement job was with an outfit with 7 employees and even if one of the guys was really grouchy it was a joy to work my butt off, rather than keep rotating my list of ghosting sites.

Frosty The Lucky.

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Frosty, you're right about the guy I worked with, and the micromanaging boss we worked for.

It's difficult to make a living working for people and companies at the extreme limits of professionalism.  That being said, I've learned that practitioners of malicious mediocrity are a much bigger threat to others because they're far more numerous in the working world.  They hew a careful line where they hit whatever figures are being measured, without delivering the work those measures would normally verify.  These are the people who consistently deliver a project that is late, over budget, yet somehow profitable.

In their wake, there will be a convoluted story about the tragedy of good intentions meant to justify every broken promise, delay, additional expense, and dispute with their coworkers.  They resolutely believe that saying; "this is how the game is played" relieves them of any moral obligation to act in good faith.

Every achievement in their professional life comes despite their actions.  Woe betide anyone depending on a partnership with these people.  They are the living embodiment of the Scorpion in  Aesop's fable about the Scorpion and the Frog.  

 

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Another aspect of this is the Peter Principle which came out in the late 60s.  For those unfamiliar with the concept I will briefly recap it.  The Peter Principle posits that in any hierarchical organization a person will be promoted until they reach their level of incompetence because performance at one job does not equate with competence at the next higher position because each level has a different set of necessary skills.  A high performing car salesperson may very well not make a good sales manager.  A highly skilled line worker may not be a good supervisor.  A good sergeant may well make a poor captain and an awful colonel.  Organizations tend to promote based on performance in the person's existing position rather than their potential to perform well in the next higher position.

In blacksmithing this is the reason that many smiths fail when they try to make the craft their primary source of income.  Competence at making things with hot metal does not translate into being able to run a business which requires a different toolbox of skills.  They are competent at being a smith but incompetent at being a business person.

Some organizations have tried to deal with this problem by returning people to the lower level where they were most competent or with up or out policies.  However, it has been my experience that the principle still is common and explains why you see so many incompetent folk in management positions.

"By hammer and hand all arts do stand." 

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Ahhh George, I've been avoiding bringing up "The Peter Principle" not that it doesn't apply but I'm not sure if it's a failing of the system or human nature to rise one step past your level of competence. We all do it and butting your head against your ceiling is often thought of as a good trait. Persistence is a virtue isn't it? So society,  I think human nature rewards us for pushing past our level of competence where we stall out, unable to climb farther. 

Isn't, "The excellent the enemy of the good?" Haven't I been derided and later mocked for advising folk to recognize "good enough"? 

I just don't think it's human nature to give up till we're whipped and maybe someday we'll figure out large organizational systems that can cope with The Peter Principle. It most certainly won't be in government, nobody able to write their own rules and given themselves raises will ever have incentive to do a good job. Unless the job you want done is spending other people's money that is.

Frosty The Lucky.

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18 hours ago, Frosty said:

I'm not assertive enough either, I can probably understand him better than you. It's not an excuse though, it doesn't matter how much you know or how well you can do the job, if you won't do it you need a different job. 

Some people are just too laid back to lead. Plain and simple. I'm pretty soft-spoken and it took me owning my own assembly business at twenty years old to get over not wanting to be seen as "pushy". I still struggle with it at times. 

Pnut

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Some businesses also have a technical path as well as a management path.  I've worked for a technical genius who was being paid at the same level as his bosses boss; but held a supervisory position.  He had been directly responsible for developing a product that was *netting* the company 3-7 billion US dollars a year back in the 1990's.  Didn't want to go into management; liked being where he could still be hands on with the engineers...Company was smart enough to figure out how to keep him happy.

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Frosty, I think Thomas pretty much nailed it in terms of illustrating how the peter principal can be avoided.  It's a perfect counter example of the false choice I started with.  Tying compensation levels to  places in the hierarchy rewards bad behavior, and always has.  If compensation was based on actual returned value to the firm, the world would look very different.

For any of that to exist, business owners would have to stop pretending that proxies for performance are valid indicates of value.  More to the point, society as a whole needs to recognize that personnel really is policy.  I've run into more than my share of shady managers in my line of work.  Every one of them was the first link in a chain of shady people ending with the owner of the firm.  It doesn't happen by accident.  Everyone from HR to the mail room was chosen and more importantly, retained for a reason.  

Management wouldn't exist if working people simply showed up and did their jobs.  Being a bit more charitable, management wouldn't exist if there wasn't an occasional need for judgement, leadership, and accountability. 

pnut, I've encountered a lot of soft-spoken  or introverted people who struggle with being perceived as pushy.  I sometimes wonder if they see that extroverted people share that struggle.  I have consciously avoided even temporary field management positions because employers quickly notice that I'm exceptionally good at getting people to do their jobs.  Every past boss that has seen me in action, wouldn't let me do anything else.  It makes me miserable because I don't like yelling at people.  I don't like to be surrounded by people who only understand or respect displays of force.  The whole thing is a waste of human potential.  

 

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I like Thomas' model too, sounds like a fine place to work. When I started working in Dad's shop he paid me for piece work depending on the job. Running the circle shear and punch press both paid 1/4 cent/part. Seeing as the punch press was easy to max out at 2 strokes per second it was a WAY better job than the circle shear which took maybe 10 seconds to cut a blank.

The only way management wouldn't need to exist is if there weren't more than one maybe two people working together, even then who decides who collects coconut shells, who cracks them and when there are enough? Multiple interacting jobs must be managed. 

What I see as serious erosion to functional operations is the theory a person can manage an operation without knowing how to do it. Sure a guy can keep books pay bills, make collections, etc and not know anything about the factory. But you can't run the factory floor without knowing how it works.

What gets me is how often positions are determined on a dishonest scale but the people running and working under it don't realize it's mortally flawed. 

Frosty The Lucky.

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On 5/13/2020 at 7:04 PM, George N. M. said:

In blacksmithing this is the reason that many smiths fail when they try to make the craft their primary source of income.  Competence at making things with hot metal does not translate into being able to run a business which requires a different toolbox of skills.  They are competent at being a smith but incompetent at being a business person.

Yep

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Also why when I get all the people coming to me and saying they don't want to go to college, they want to be a smith! I tell them the first thing you need to do is to go to college and take all the business courses!

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6 hours ago, rockstar.esq said:

If compensation was based on actual returned value to the firm, the world would look very different.

Most CEO's would certainly be in a different economic situation, that's for sure.

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BTW, the geologic/soil science version of the Peter Principle is, "The clods sink to the top."

"By hammer and hand all arts do stand." 

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6 minutes ago, George N. M. said:

"The clods sink to the top."

:lol: :lol: :lol: :lol: :lol: :lol: 

Frosty The Lucky.

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23 hours ago, ThomasPowers said:

Also why when I get all the people coming to me and saying they don't want to go to college, they want to be a smith! I tell them the first thing you need to do is to go to college and take all the business courses!

What seems missing in most of the above stories, is the simple fact that a business exist for the singular purpose of making money. 

All the other intellectually construed and very peripheral concepts do not address the core issue. A business is there to make money, no money no business. 

So what really matters is, if the model works to make money. If the workers are happy, the middle management obsolete, irrelevant or corrupt, the owner an ogre, are all irrelevant if the business works. Perhaps even the business failure could not be attributed to the ubiquitous bad/ corrupt/ irrelevant management. 

If college would hold the key to good business (good as in making money), all college professor would be rich. Never wondered why schools do not teach the subject of how to make money? Money is taboo? Or is it that one's bank account is just too obvious of a declaration of incompetence on the subject ... and pretending falsely disinterest in money and interest in less "dirty" subjects, a way to deflect? 

If the workplace is supposed to be a happy place of gathering and pass the day, and to collect the paycheque once a fortnight  whilst making memorable creations and build up stories to tell ... well ... I never got that particular memo.

There is a say, that goes more or less like this ... If you are good at something, it is because of who you are. If you are no good at something, you teach it.

Considering that most seek wisdom in business from books and lectures, it seems logic that school and university produces mediocrity, and geniuses come from school dropouts. 

Or ... if not dropouts, genius in business are so despite their teachers. :)

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Marc:  You are correct that the purpose of business is to make money.  That is the basis of the capitalist economic system.  I think what bothers many people, myself included, is the unnecessary waste and inefficiency.  If, because of poor management there is more personnel turn over, contracts are lost, too much money is spent on things that do not return value, or opportunities are lost not as much money is being made as would be under optimum conditions.

If the business schools are unable to teach folk how business works what is the alternative?  Lots of people are self taught in business and lots of them pay the tuition of failure because they do not have the necessary knowledge. Yes, there is some truth in the old expression that those who can do, do and those who can't do, teach.  But I don't see a lot of viable alternatives.

Apprenticeships and internships are only as good as the business as the person is exposed to.  If it is a well run, successful business great.  If it is not, all a person learns are the wrong lessons.

As imperfect as the education system is I have to agree with Thomas' advice.  There isn't a better alternative for most people

"By hammer and hand all arts do stand.". 

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Yes, George, you are stating the obvious and majority held view.

However to repeat what others do with mediocre result and expect different results is not the best way, rather the worse.

The alternative to an average system rigged to produce average workers to man the business of the successful, is the recognition that such is the purpose of the education system. Not to produce successful people but to produce useful mediocrity. 

Everyone is free to join the majority in their average quest for average results. I say, do so knowing that it will not be good for anything past average at best. 

The genius and the successful are those who develop the ability to see past the average blindfold. 

There was once a popular book on the subject. "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" ... so long ago. :)

 

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A lot depends upon the employee outlook. Many years ago, prior to my retirement, we had an opening and I was involved in the interview process. The field was narrowed to two candidates. One had the attitude of "you pay me and I'll show you what I can do" while the other had opposite attitude " I'll show you what I can do and you can pay me". Guess which one got the job. That person came up through the ranks and is now Chief and still showing what he can do.

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Marc, I'm reminded of the mythical Minnesota town of Lake Woebegone, the creation of the American humorist Garrison Kiellor, "Where all the men are strong, all the women are good looking, and all the children are above average."

There will always be an average, the variable is how high or low the average is.  The goal of education, or even this thread, is to raise the average.  Not everyone can be in the top 10% of anything, intelligence, beauty, skill, emotional maturity, wisdom. etc..  "When we are all gentlemen who will clean the drains?"

I've had a copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull on my bookshelf since the early '70s.  I found it a sweet, inspirational, and pleasant story.  If I were more cynical I could say that it is another iteration of various American self help/inspirational books going back to Bishop Norman Vincent Peale in the 1940s and '50s.  

The best any of us can do is to do the best we can with whatever abilities and limitations we have been given or acquired and to help those coming up with any wisdom we have gathered along the way.

"By hammer and hand all arts do stand."

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"Cream rises to the top, but so does pond scum."

The pessimistic among us have come to the conclusion that the best we can do is not just limited by our own abilities and talents, but by the artificial barriers and constraints imposed by the 'clods' that have risen to the top. That is when the frustration sets in.

"If you get up in the morning, and run into a single jerk, then that is his problem. If you get up in the morning and everyone you meet all day is a jerk to you, then YOU are the problem."

You can have a team of superstars: educated well above the competition, dedicated to quality, eager to do the best job possible for the end user and the organization. One bad supervisor with relative immunity, who can destroy any gains produced on a whim, change plans and suppliers without ever consulting the crew that actually does the work, show favoritism on one hand and stall raises, careers and progress on the other, is a poison pill to the organization.

"Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil."

When no one above the supervisor's level wants to hear anything that would make them have to reconsider the job being done, you have a systemic problem. If the only way someone can be removed, or even reviewed at more than a cursory level, is to commit an egregious HR violation, you have systemic morale problems. 

Manufacturing has a theory of limits, which can also be applied to blacksmithing and other human endeavors. There is a choke point in every process that limits through-put. If you want to increase productivity, systematically remove each choke point as you find it, and then move on to the next choke point. If only senior admins could be taught to think logically...

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