joe's blog

Wanna Buy a Rolex?

The posters are hanging up outside offices. No, they are not campaign posters, but advertisements pitching the sales of fundraising junk for employees’ children. It all started back in 1917, when girls looking to finance their scout troop activities actually baked cookies and sold them in their school cafeteria. By 1922, the Girl Scouts began to standardize their recipe. And, by the mid-thirties the national organization licensed the production of their cookies to commercial bakers. Over the decades that followed, the variety has expanded and packaging has progressed to advertise the benefits of scouting. Today, Girl Scout cookies are an entrenched part of Americana. How can you resist overpaying for that nostalgic feeling you get when you open that tube of thin mints and sit down with a glass of milk?

It did not take long before it was more than the Girls Scouts looking for the dough in your pockets. Sports teams, extracurricular school groups, and through failed mill levies, even the public schools themselves were enlisting children as pitchpersons to bring in financing.

The problem was that the Girls Scouts had the corner on the whole cookie thing. So, all the other organizations were left to find some other product to peddle. Enter the world of big business. Opportunistic corporations saw this trend as a means to enlist millions of young salespersons who could wring money out of their family’s and neighbor’s pockets… all for “a good cause.”
People across America are buying stuff they do not really want out of obligation because someone sometime bought some junk from their kid. In a kind of quid-pro-quo process the producers of the junk are sitting back loving the whole process. Of course, they give the pathetic percentage of the take to the “worthy cause”….because they are “committed to the community.”

How many magazine subscriptions, wrapping paper, candy bars or popcorn have you bought out of sympathy, obligation or guilt?

It used to be that the children involved in the organization would actually go door to door and work the tables outside grocery stores selling their product. The work was part of the goodness of the whole process. The aim was to instill a good work ethic in the young people. Competitions were put in place to see who was the most industrious. That worked until one enterprising young individual breached new marketing territory by enlisting their parent to peddle the goods at the office.

Lets face it, this may work well for the kid to achieve the most points and win the mp3 player, but it really has no place in the workplace. It does nothing for the child other than encourage them to stay home playing video games while mom or dad does their work for them. More importantly, it puts workers in an uncomfortable position when they see their boss conducting an on-the-side sales business out of their office. How can an individual not feel obligated to shell out some of their hard earned moolah when they see other peers signing up to order crap from their boss’s kid.

The sea of cubicles is transformed into a kind of third world bazaar or California flee market in which each cubical tenant is pitching their wares. “Get your magazine subscriptions here!”, “Special…Today only! Get your three rolls of wrapping paper for the price of four.”, “Popcorn! Get your Popcorn here!”, “Hey, could I interest you in a new sports drink?”, “Partial ownership makes sense.”, “Have you been injured in an auto accident?”….

No! I am just on my way to a meeting!

Aren’t we supposed to be getting work done?

My Light Saber

Momentum is defined by Random House as “Impetus of a nonphysical process, such as an idea or a course of events.” This force of nature is very powerful. Beware.

Shiny objects have a similar affect on both small children and business executives. Sparkling with movement and casting rays of bright beams that dance in the eyes, attention is captured and the mind mesmerized. Shakespeare expressed the unfortunate reality however, noting that “all that glitters is not gold.”

Too often, misguided or just plain incompetent employees sell merit-less but shiny and sparkly concepts to executives. Like a kid watching Saturday morning commercials, the executive believes it will be as amazing as it appears on TV when choreographed with all optional accessories, cool camera angles and a snappy music track. They bite. “Yes, Yes” they say. “That is what I want.”

At this point, any rational perspective to the contrary is dismissed as unfounded cynicism. How dare you tell the emperor he has no clothes? After all, how can we be successful if we do not work as a team? We have no room for dissention.

Later, after much investment, the result, in reality, just like the children’s toy, is nothing like what was portrayed. The situation is clearly a disappointment. Perhaps there is something to learn from the experience and those involved can move forward enriched with new found knowledge.

Not so fast! Do not forget our old friend momentum. Throw in a dose of pride (all executives add this ingredient to situations like salt on french fries) and you have the makings of a powerful force that can destroy a company. Like throwing good money after bad on a stingy slot machine, the first move is to invest more. Wordnet 3.0 from Princeton defines momentum as “the product of a body's mass and its velocity.” More investment adds mass and more time adds velocity. The more expensive the mistake becomes, and the longer the mistake persists, the greater the momentum grows and the less likely it will be realized, just how bad the idea really is. The reasoning goes like this: “We cannot change now after all the effort, time and money we have put into this. We must make it a success.” The second move is to concoct a justification and feign vindication by taking credit for any positive experiences in the business at large, regardless of their relation to the bad idea. The third move is to construct reasons outside the control of the organization for all negative issues and results. Assign responsibility and fault to all failures outside of the organization (this is called aiming the blame vector).

At this point, the end game is more about saving face, than doing what is good for the company. Determined to protect the integrity of the dream, dissenters are discredited, dismissed, and reprimanded. This is where the most spineless of all cop-out tactics is attempted: the “Not Invented Here” (NIH) technique. In this maneuver, the originator of the ill fated idea (or the executive that bought into it) deflects any and all criticism as reactive envy. They claim that others are critical only because they did not come up with the idea themselves. Do I hear the recess bell ringing? Are we in elementary school? The sad fact is that this is not just occurring on the playground, but in corporate conference rooms.

The executive will play with their overpriced toy, pretending to have fun, believing their own rhetoric, just to “prove” their dissenters wrong -- like the Star Wars light saber that I saved for months to buy back in 1977, despite my parent’s warnings. I can only hope that today’s momentum-laden bad ideas will someday be revealed as the overpriced cheap flashlights and lame plastic tubes that they really are.

Buyer Beware.

Crack that Whip

When I was a kid, I remember people talking about the guy down the street that was a workaholic. He never had time for his family because he was addicted to his work. Today these people are recognized as motivated employees. As a matter of fact these are the people who have risen to executive levels in the company. They have sold out their family souls in order to dedicate themselves to the corporate future.

Addictions are everywhere at the workplace. Some call them habits, but they are addictions for sure. We have all seen the marketing schlep going through the DTs because he has not yet imbibed in his morning caffeine fix.

We have all witnessed the incredibly determined people who will brave sub-zero temperatures and arctic level wind chill just to go outside to suck that much needed drag on their cigarette. Our smoking friends are more dedicated than cheeseheads at Lambeau field in a January blizzard. That must be one strong desire.

As addictive as smoking may be, there is a new addiction at work that appears to be even more powerful. It comes in the form of small flask-like containers usually concealed in one’s shirt or pants pocket or sometimes even worn proudly in a holster on their belt. Yes, it is the ultimate work addiction…the Research In Motion Blackberry device, more descriptively known as the CRACK-berry. This little device allows one to mainline email like a junkie with a hypodermic needle.

Recent investigative reports have uncovered emails between RIM executives clearly exposing their knowledge of just how addictive their product has become. Additionally, these same executives may be implicated in a scheme to actually increase addiction. Recently discovered emails expose talk of how to add mobility, faster service, and increased functionality, all in order to keep users hooked. It remains to be seen if a class action suit will be brought or if individuals will sue for damages.

Clearly this addiction has taken over family rooms, vacations, and weekend outings. The director of Families Forever says, “It is an epidemic that is destroying the very fabric of our families.”

It is an uncomfortable sight, but we have all seen parents slipping off at the amusement park to a hidden bench just to suck down a couple of email messages. In serious need of electronic detoxification, they spiral into deceit when caught red handed by their spouse with responses like “Yes, but I only read them, honest, I did not reply!”, “Really, this is the first time, I just had a weak moment” or “No, I wasn’t working, I was just clearing out some spam”.
This epidemic is not just targeting the middle aged. Young people that grew up with Gameboys in their hands are particularly vulnerable. These youngsters have a propensity to succumb to high dexterity thumb input.

Help is available. If you, or someone you know finds themselves making excuses to slip off by themselves, missing out on conversations, distracted in meetings, presentations or lectures, or are experiencing sore, crooked, or fatigue in the thumbs, please seek help now. Find an E-Tox center near you.

We must work together to stop this epidemic.

You Gotta Believe

“You gotta believe you can do it!” This time of year there are many motivational articles in newspapers and magazines. The self-help and motivational books all migrate toward the front of bookstores. Sales of Anthony Robbins material skyrocket. This information all boils down to more or less the same thing: You have to believe you can do it, or you will never do it.

The problem with this philosophy in the corporate world is that we often bite off more than we can chew. This is because we are either overly optimistic, a narcissist, an egomaniac, or are in executive management (in which case, it is all of the above).
Every undertaking has some amount of risk. Unfortunately, the risk part of a project gets swept under the excitement rug when putting together a plan. We are counseled: “Plan for success, not for failure.” Somehow this consultant-inspired sound bite translates into “Do not plan for contingencies.”
The thinking goes: If you have a back-up plan, then you will end up using it. Conversely, if you do not have a back-up plan you cannot use it.
Besides, why waste resources working back-up or contingency plans when those resources could be applied to the impossible overly optimistic plan.

I remember in business school that project management included a significant helping of risk mitigation and management material. As I recall, all good plans have some contingencies built in. Unexplainably, somewhere between the classroom and the boardroom, lobotomic ladder climbing transforms this knowledge into brass balderdash. “We are positive minded and do not plan for failure.” Unfortunately, in the real world, things go wrong.

Executives, enamored with always getting their way, demand success as if it can be dictated. “This schedule will be met.” And just to ensure nothing goes wrong, all contingency and back-up plans are removed.

This powerful philosophy could change business as we know it.
Now instead of paying for fire insurance, the building is fireproofed by simply removing all the fire extinguishers. Why waste all that money on warranty reserves? Heck, without warranties, the product will surely work perfectly. For that matter why have customer service? It is only there in case customers need help. Without customer service, no one will need any help.
Clearly, all those highway deaths are due to those extraneous air bags and seat belts.
Why use belay ropes or reserve parachutes?
Speaking of parachutes, it is interesting to identify who within the company has one of the golden variety.

“Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. This is your CEO, er, I mean, Captain, speaking. We will be traveling aboard this new state of the art airliner. This plane is so advanced that it has absolutely no safety mechanisms thereby ensuring a problem-free and safe flight to our destination. We will be ready for take off… just as soon as I get these last buckles fastened on my parachute…”

Mission Impossible

New Years. It is kind of a weird holiday; jammed on the end of Christmas break. It kind of creates a weird in-between time after Christmas and before New Years Day. Nonetheless, many businesses have a company holiday on New Years day. This gives time for pause… to consider the year ahead. It is a time for making resolutions and goal setting. Not just personal resolutions and goals, but for setting professional targets and corporate alignment.

These days it is apparently imperative for every company, organization, and individual to have a mission statement. These well-intentioned statements aim to define the essence of the entity. In order to prevent myopic growth and limiting opportunities, these statements are often made broad…too broad. They end up having little actual meaning. That does not stop the brass from spending a sizable chunk of the profit-sharing dollars on high paid image consultants to develop the perfect mission statement.

Despite the dollars spent and "expert" advice, these typically end up sounding the same. Something like: “To provide world class (enter product category) enabling (enter people or businesses) to achieve (pick one: improved quality of life, efficient operation, value add, or world peace).”
Actually, they sound quite a bit like a Miss America response to the proverbial “if you had one wish” question.

Of course, the actual mission of every company is the same: “To make money!”

Not happy with this gravy train, the paid consultants inform us that the mission statement is only part of our strategic plan. For a complete plan, we must also have a vision statement. Not to be confused with the mission statement that reflects the present, the vision statement paints the picture of the desired future. And guess what? For just a little extra dough the consultants can help conjure up a vision statement that aligns with the expensive mission statement. A special package deal!

The vision statement is to provide inspiration, and direction. Notwithstanding copious available software and consultant help, these too end up sounding more or less similar: “To become the undisputed worldwide leader in (enter superset of current business).”

Of course the actual vision of every company is the same “To make a lot more money”

Just when you are ready to put that corporate checkbook away, the consultants remind you that it does no good to have mission and vision statements if there is no plan to reach the vision. Strategic goals must be identified to draw closer to the vision. And, guess what? Yep, you got it. They just happen to have some expertise in this process. Surely we could work out a deal.

Goals are the targeted steps toward achieving the vision. These should be aligned throughout the organizational hierarchy so that individuals can identify personal goals to support those of their management. These goals end up being very vague at the top such as “Deliver a complete portfolio of best-in-class products.” The next level down aligns with something like “Deliver (enter specific function) to support a complete portfolio of best-in-class products.” Wow! … That is insightful.

Anyway, the actual goals, corporate and personal, are the same: “Make more money”.

I have an idea! Quit spending so much money developing all these statements and get to work.
Mr. Franklin said it best: “A penny saved is a penny earned.”

From Red Tape to Duct Tape

It is known as red tape. The administrative mélange of sticky steps, procedures and forms required to complete what should be a simple task. What drives this messy cocktail of work to exist in the first place? One word: control. Each level of management wants to ensure that they are in control and informed of all activity. A more familiar term for this is micro-management (although this arguably gives too much credit to the act…the term management implies some value add in the process).

It all starts out with a basic and commonly performed activity. Then, one day, some high level executive gets a wild hair that this activity is occurring too often. A process is put in place to track the occurrences of the activity and report to the executive. In order to ensure that the executive is not surprised by the results, the process is modified to allow middle management to pre–approve any planned occurrences of said activity. Of course, the lower levels of management cannot be left out, so new tape is added to the process requiring pre-authorization of any request before being submitted for pre-approval.

The new tape has the desired effect at the executive level. The activity does occur less often. This reinforces the perceived usefulness of tape and tends to lead to more adhesives and bandages applied throughout the organization. Before long, the employees find themselves bound by rolls of tape like a hostage in a bad movie. Unfortunately, with hands and feet bound, the employee has little faculty to perform any kind of meaningful work; the actual result is significant and superfluous inefficiency.

Eventually this grind becomes evident. Then, one day, an executive has an epiphany (actually, a consultant whispered in their ear). This inefficiency must end. Delegation! That’s the answer. Cool words like empowerment, delegation and trust are thrown around like feigned smiles at the Oscar awards. A decree is passed down: “No more approvals.” The process is streamlined. The shackles are released -freeing all from the bondage of bureaucratic process. Sounds great, and looks good on paper.

What actually happens, however, is that the intoxicating control is not easily relinquished. While the official process may have removed all pre-approvals and authorizations in order to force the reduction of red tape, middle management is not so willing to surrender control. While they overtly adhere to the process, they covertly introduce their own process for pre-approval. Likewise, the lower levels of management put in place their own home-brew processes required before entering the next level of process.
Now, instead of one convoluted process of red tape, one must traverse multiple sticky obstacle courses. The red tape is certainly reduced; unfortunately it has been replaced with a wad of intertwined duct tape, masking tape and glue.

Great! Now we are getting somewhere.

Procedural Plenitude

Remember the K-Car? Detroit bosses would look out their windows to see what kind of cars people were driving. “Yep, they love our stuff.” Meanwhile, the formerly blown off W. Edwards Deming was not dissuaded when American manufacturers told him to pound sand. Instead, he headed across the Pacific. It wasn’t long before names like Lexus and Infinity were replacing Cadillac and Lincoln to describe quality. Finally, American business woke up and began clamoring to get their hands on the Demming material. It became hard to find a company without some kind of quality initiative. Consultants were everywhere. We were inundated with three letter acronyms like QFD, SPC and DOE. Soon, everyone was so focused on the Malcomb Baldridge Award and ISO certification that business suffered.
Then along came Motorola. They made a big splash with Six Sigma. This snappy sounding fad apparently has something to do with a Greek martial arts expert that has a black belt. It turns out, it was created by some college buddies from the Sigma Sigma Sigma fraternity who could not find work and hooked up with another fraternity, Charga Lotta Mulla, to create a bunch of acronyms and buzzwords packaged in technical soup with a cool name. If Wall Street had any idea how much time is actually wasted in corporate conference rooms on this endeavor they would be appalled with a kind of "Sick Stigma".

Now don’t get me wrong. This stuff does work for certain situations. The problem is that people make careers out of it and then start applying it to everything. Too much of a good thing is bad.

Quality endeavors all seem to require the definition and documentation of procedures. If it is written down, then it must be repeatable; this is apparently the key to quality. So we now have a procedure for everything.
For example, in order to use the rest room one must:
1. Submit a request to use the facilities.
2. The request is forwarded to the requester’s supervisor for approval.
3. Once approved, the request moves to the facilities management.
4. When facilities are available, notification will be sent to both the requesting individual and the supervisor.
5. The requester may then proceed to use the facilities.
6. When finished, the user must notify the facilities management in order to update availability.
7. Facilities management will collect metrics on usage and provide results to the supervisors in order to monitor and improve efficiency.

The problem with procedures is that they must be defined. This necessarily requires a procedure to define procedures. Of course, this in turn requires a procedure for defining a procedure to define a procedure. In a recursive mirror reflecting mirror quandary, this spirals into infinity.
Now that is brilliant! The consultants will never be out of work.

Celebrate Diversity

The morning ritual starts out the same. Whether you arrive at 6:00 a.m. or 9:00 a.m. nothing gets done until first you partake of the eye opening, wake-up juice for a java jumpstart. Coffee used to be just that, coffee. Sure, you could add some creamer or sugar, but black or otherwise, it was still just the unadorned cup of joe from the office pot. There have always been those with the long commute that got a head start on the way in, with a stop off at the Seven Eleven for a cardboard cup of truck stop caliber swill.
Years ago, we got another choice: decaffeinated. Apparently, wives and doctors nagging about only having one cup got the better of some chemists at Sanka and forever after we associate the color orange with "decaf".

Things have certainly changed. Just look around at all the morning rituals. Talk about workplace diversity. It is certainly evident in the coffee consumption.

You have the boutique crowd that wants a morning coffee drink, not a cup of coffee. These folks, even without a commute, stop off at Starbucks to get their “Venti Iced Non-fat Sugar Free Decaf Vanilla Latte with just a sprinkle of cinnamon”. Not that they want to drink it on the way in, but they want to sip away over the first hour at work. These folks slip out mid morning and mid afternoon to refill.

The more esoteric set competes to bring in the most elaborate paraphernalia to freshly brew an individual cup of gourmet coffee. From coffee grinders, to single cup filter systems, to coffee presses, these interesting contraptions of mechanical rods, springs, and glass demand attention and garner envy among the group. These afficionados would never touch the office coffee; it is way below them.

There are those who are too cheap to buy prepared coffee, or to pony up for the gourmet varieties, but still want to imbibe. These folks tweak the office coffee with half-and-half, 2%, or skim, and choose from blue, pink, yellow, and now brown sweetener packets. Everyone has his or her own special recipe. The more innovative folks attempt to emulate the prepared coffee drinks by adding a little instant hot chocolate mix to produce their own, made-from-scratch “mocha latte’”.

Finally, there is the Jeff Foxworthy bunch. These folks arrive early to get the first cup. Hopefully, it is left over from last night and the janitorial staff did not turn off the burner. This burnt delicacy is a kind of redneck espresso. These folks typically fill up their large 64-ounce coffee stained plastic mugs from the Circle-K. The trick for these folks is the “seasoned” (read: “not washed for months”) plastic taste. The more layers of dried coffee the better. Hardcore brothers of this bunch prefer instant coffee..."just a pinch between the cheek and gum."

There you have it, diversity in the workplace.

Me? I drink tea.

Thankful Thoughts

The days are getting short: dark when you arrive at work, and dark when you leave. Winter is near. It is the beginning of the Holiday Season. The season is kicked off by Thanksgiving. A great work holiday because it is usually good for two days off, plus the weekend, resulting in a four-day reprieve from the pressures of work.
Thanksgiving is a good time to step back from the cynicism and consider those things for which we should be thankful. For example, those of us that are employed should be thankful that we have work and are earning a reasonable wage. We should be thankful that the United States economy continues to be one of the most resilient economies in the world. We should give thanks to the American consumer that continues to drive that economy. As employees, we should be thankful that 401K’s allow us to manage our own retirement and we no longer depend on retirement pensions provided by the company. We should give thanks for our raise in pay this year that almost covers the increase in our portion of the cost for our health care benefit. Thanks should be given that, although times get tough, our companies still provide us with the essentials… coffee, restrooms, and yes, even the toilet paper is back.
It is often useful to look at your situation relative to others in order to put blessings into perspective. For example, I am thankful that I do not work at Google where I would be burdened with many financial advisors and a great responsibility to manage all the income from my lucrative stock options. Likewise, I am thankful that I do not work at Apple where the gratification of delivering such popular and successful products could increase my job satisfaction and ownership to the point it might upset my work life balance. Finally, I am grateful that I am not burdened with detailed planning for a paid sabbatical that Intel provides to employees.
Yes, I am quite fortunate.
Now, corporate executives should not stop there. Their thanks should extend to be thankful for their pre-arranged stock sale that "just happened” to coincide with the fifty-two week high for the stock. They should be thankful that the number of granted options was considerably higher, and the price of their granted options was considerably lower than that given to the minions below. And of course, they must be grateful for all their industrious employees working over the Thanksgiving holiday to meet a Monday delivery date (this is really important because the executive receives a considerable bonus if delivery occurs before Tuesday).
Yes, it is indeed satisfying to step back and appreciate the many things for which we are thankful.
It is good for the soul…. and it really helps alleviate cynicism.

Lunch Meet

We know them as meetings - those get-togethers in which we assemble or conference for some meaningful purpose. Although, it is not always clear what that purpose is. There many types of meetings, ranging from: informal to formal, structured to free form, large group meetings to one-on-one meetings, short meetings to long meetings. Some meetings are designed to distribute information. In these meetings, one or two people present information to a larger audience. Other meetings are of the status-gathering variety. In these meetings, one person typically collects status from the many other participants. Still, another type of meeting is the working meeting. In these meetings, participants are expected to discuss and work through some task.

The problem with all these meetings is, well, just that…ALL these meetings.

Many meetings are not one-time events but are instead so-called repeating meetings. These start out as a useful meeting. The decision is made to have another get together at same time next week. Before long this meeting becomes an every week event. The calendar is cluttered with repeating meetings that have long outlived their usefulness. The vestigial slot on the calendar becomes a repeating meeting of another type, in that it covers the same material over and over. You begin to feel like Phil Connors in Groundhog Day.
The most coveted times for meetings are all taken up by these repeating meetings. So any new or important meeting must be fit in around those times.
Urgent status meetings are called at the end of the day in order to report upward to the executive
“we don’t micro-manage “ team that somehow feels the need to understand the minutia of the day's events. This meeting is often called a “stand-up” meeting or a “standing” meeting. At this meeting no chairs are used. The goal of this meeting is to be quick (no need to sit), collect status and adjourn. Unfortunately, the standing meeting morphs over time from standing to sitting. The meeting becomes a standing meeting only in the sense that it is a standing meeting on the calendar. Now the end of the day is full.
Meetings spawn other meetings. More often than not, action items from a meeting include setting up other meetings. These are generally of the “Lets take this off-line” or the “Let’s meet first thing in the morning” variety.

You know that the meeting schedule is saturated when the only available time left for meetings is through the lunch hour. Sometimes food is brought in (participants are supposed to feel indebted for this gesture, although I believe it is required as part of the Geneva Convention). It is a joy to try to conduct business while consuming sustenance. Nothing like presenting between bites, making sure to wipe the mayo off your mouth.
“Having meat for lunch” no longer has anything to do with your deli selection, but everything to do with cheesy power point slides.
“I’ll have the turkey and swiss on rye please….”

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