29 October 2009

Don’t Mind the Stains (or Evidences of Organizational Longevity)

I recently put on my white elastic banded socks and wore them all day. It wasn't until that evening while visiting some friends that I removed my shoes and realized that I had worn the wrong socks. I have two pairs of white elastic banded socks. This pair was different from the other pair, and indeed all my other socks, in that they were heavily stained. While I was initially embarrassed over having worn stained socks I quickly remembered why they were stained: I had worn this very pair of socks a few years ago while playing football with some friends in muddy field on a wet Oregon day. The stains incurred were and are an ever present reminder of the fun game that was played and the victory that was achieved after much effort. I had kept the socks as something of a trophy from that game.

These stained socks serve as a reminder of my accomplishment. Other stains do not have such fond memories attached to them. Juice stains in the carpet, oil stains on a favorite shirt or blood stains on pants. In many ways each of these was simply part of my life's course. Each also has a memory attached to them, some better than others, and though each has a story none of them elicit the pride of my mud stained socks.

Organizations also have stains. The longer they are around the more they will have. Some of the stains are like giant juice stains on the floor while others are small marks of personal accomplishment like my socks. Each has a story and reason behind it and these reasons have shaped the growth of that organization. Even if the stain is cleaned and is no longer visible, those who knew about the stain will still remember it was there.

Sometimes you can catch the host stealing glances at the now clean carpet patch, or you notice they avoid it by walking around a perceptively good patch of carpet. Organizationally this may take form as employees refusing to do something because a specific person is supposed to handle it, even if that person is on vacation. They may provide excuses such as "I don't know if I am allowed to do that" or they may lie saying "I'll take care of it" while they are secretly waiting for the absent person to come back and handle it. Sometimes they will blatantly refuse, "Oh, no I can't. Carl has to do it."

Policy formation can be greatly affected by minor stains like a pair of old pants that you can't part with, but you never wear because they have a ketchup stain on the thigh. These can be an embarrassing moment the owner had with a customer, a mid-level manager who was publically humiliated by a superior or an employee who said the wrong thing to a customer and was severely disciplined. Each situation can cause new policies that forbid the wearing of the tarnished garment, but not the disposal of it because you never know when you have need a mostly useless policy.

Behavioral ethics can also be influenced by stains, or rather the threat of new stains. This happens when people are especially careful around certain individuals who sometimes have "accidents" that may cause a spill and subsequent stain. It may be a viscous manager who, upon offense, spreads your shame across the company, a co-worker who is known to spread gossip and rumors to any who will listen or even an accidental run-in that may cause some awkward questions to be asked. This careful avoidance of potential staining is very different from the careful attention given while wearing special clothing.

Not all stains remain hidden. Some are shown off and even publicly aired. These stains, much like the mud stained socks, are symbols of the organization's victory, near death experiences and staying power. They are aired in defiance of their competition and their display are a challenge to their opponents. These stains can be more liberal customer return policies put in place after a viscous battle with a competitor, a special greeting among members in honor of a beloved leader or a signature service performed "because that's way we've always done it". These stains are not always metaphorical, like most of the other organizational stains, but are sometimes literal: burn marks from a fire that nearly destroyed a warehouse or cracks a building's walls caused by a strong earthquake. Often these stains are glorified and incorporated into the organization's myths.

The longer the organization has been around, the more stains it is bound to have. Not all stains are bad, in fact many can lead to improved moral and loyalty, but often these stains lead to the creation and sustaining of policies that don't really make sense and can be damaging to the organization and those that associate with it.

26 October 2009

'N' is for November, new, notebook, nose and Neptune

November is a good month. I'm done with mid-terms and have grades back, I get a new phone and I get to go home for Thanksgiving break. I am excited.

Phone (my mobile phone) has not been well as of late. In fact, he is chronically ill (if you can call getting old an illness). His battery used to last for days and now lasts for a day, half a day if I talk to a lot of people. His screen is wearing out. It's not broken, cracked or damaged. No, it's just been used so much that the plastic that protects the screen has split from my hear pressing on it day after day, year after year. The old glue has lost its form and is starting to move after two years in the moist humid Oregon, the dry dusty Idaho and numerous states and countries in between (not really in between but around). So I am slated to get a new phone. Unfortunately, I have to wait as the phone I want is not coming out for a couple of weeks.

I found out that I am a better persuader than I normally gave myself credit for, but this time it wasn't really for much good. The Disneyland Dad wanted to know what he could do to get more out of his ailing laptop and I told all the coolness of mine, Justice (which is actually the company's laptop), and now he wants it back for himself. So, I have to find another laptop in November.

November also means that the world, or Rexburg at least, is getting colder and thus my nose will be getting cold. Have no fear though, I have a plethora of cold weather gear including some wonderful scarfs that will keep my nose warm.

I really have nothing on this distant planet that is sometimes the farthest planet and sometimes not (it's true). It just fit with the theme.

20 October 2009

Nobody knows that nobody knows

“Ohhh,” the tech said over the phone. “I understand now what you’re saying.” I was glad because I was running out of ways to say what I had already said. The buildings location was so clear to me and I thought I had explained clearly where the new building was. Unfortunately, the building was also clear to the tech and my directions did little to clarify the situation.

Boss had questioned me about the installation of some communications equipment. I deferred to the tech’s judgment, thinking he knew best. He had been out to the site and knew what was needed, right? Boss kept questioning though, so I finally broke down and called the tech. I was wrong; he hadn’t been out to the sight. He was going off his memory of the original installation. He didn’t know that we had added two more buildings after the initial installation, and they were on the opposite side of the pad from what he thought.

This was a classic example of lateral communication breakdown, mostly because of distance. Boss and I were communicating via email because I was out of state, the tech and I always talked over the phone except when he was on-site doing work. Some important concerns were being lost in the communication methods being used. I didn’t understand from Boss that the tech was convinced that we need to mount communication equipment at the opposite end of the complex, the tech didn’t understand that we had added new buildings in different places and Boss didn’t understand why the tech didn’t want to put the equipment in the logical place.

It took me several minutes, most of the call, to realize that the tech didn’t know about the new buildings but once he knew about the new buildings he readily agreed that the equipment should be placed where the rest of us thought it should be.

One intriguing part of lateral communication breakdown is that frequently nobody knows that other people are missing information (often the other people don’t even know that their missing information). Nobody knows that nobody knows because what everyone has makes sense to them even though what everyone else gives them doesn’t fit.

16 October 2009

Commitment to Intentions

Some months ago I was involved in a management retreat for work. The retreat's primary agenda focused on a proposed reorganization of the company. The entire first day discussed the ramifications of the changes and what the company would like after it was complete. As we worked late into the night we started planning the timescale for the reorganization.

At the beginning of the timescale planning the question was asked, “Do we all agree to do it?” There was a long silence. No one wanted to commit to the process with so many unanswered questions. Slowly a new discussion emerged that was a rehash of an old discussion: We don’t know because we don’t have all our questions answered.

The discussion was prolonging the issue and allowing us to answer around the important question. Just when we seemed doomed to revisit the entire days meeting Hero raised his hand. He waited for the room to fall silent before speaking.

“I think we are asking the wrong question,” he said. Then he told the story.

As a young man he had decided to buy a house. At the time the housing market was ripe with small 2 bedroom houses. Hero didn’t have any need for a bigger house and in fact was quite contend with a small house. The Realtor took Hero to see various houses all of which had the same fatal flaw: they were old. Hero was not a very handyman when it came to fixing up houses. The Realtor pointed out that in order for Hero to sell the house again, at an increased value, work would need to be done.

Then one day the Realtor took Hero to a small house tucked down a short private street. The house, along with the two others on the street, had been built by the same construction company who had been renting the houses out. Their policy was only to rent for a couple of years then to quickly sell the house. The duplex on the corner had been sold previous, the larger house at the end was too expensive and was already being battled over, but the three bedroom house in the middle was just right.

There was just one catch. In order to get inside the house to see it Hero would have to put in an offer to buy the house. The Realtor explained that this was not too unusual of a request because it was currently being rented out. The solution was simple: the Realtor would include a clause that the offer was contingent on Hero’s inspection of the inside. He could, for any reason, back out if he didn’t like what he saw on the inside.

The offer was written and accepted in short order. Hero and the Realtor inspected the inside.

“I like it,” Hero told the Realtor. “What do we do now?”

“You buy it,” the Realtor replied.

“What if the inspection comes back bad?” Hero asked.

“I’ll put in the contingencies for things like that,” the Realtor assured. “What I need to know now is, barring any major unforeseen issues, do you want to buy this house?”

Hero thought for several minutes then turned to the Realtor and said, “Yes”. A month later he owned the house and has happily owned it since.

Back at the retreat, Hero looked across the room. “I think the question we should be asking is the same question my realtor asked me: Barring any major unforeseen issues, is this course of the action the one we want to take?”

One by one, each member of the Company’s management stated “yes” in agreement with the plan. I pondered on the difference between the questions; they were small differences but had a profound difference. The first was asking for blind commitment, asking if we would all back, no matter what came, the plan that was presented. The second is a question of intention, asking if we are commitment, short of major problems, to see the plan through. The second question is much easier to answer than the first.

There is an additional benefit to commitment to intentions. By committing the group to its intentions Hero had in a single moment committed the Company to an end goal, not the process that would take it there, another subtle difference. Often in these meetings we decide that something needed to be done and how we would do it. Our commitment was usually to the process, not the end result. So when the process was complete and we didn’t get what we wanted we were left hanging, not sure what to do not. Being committed to the end goal meant that no matter what we were traveling until we got our desired results, or discovered they were unachievable, and we wouldn’t stop until we got there.

Finally, committing the management team to its intentions, not the process, did much too safe guard the pride and honor of the team. Instead of having attached their name to the process, which may or may not have been the best course, they had attached their names to a carefully analyzed, examined and thought out end goal. Even if the proscribe process as outlined in the retreat were to utterly fail, the team still wouldn’t have failed. Though the process could have been flawed, the goal itself was solid.

Postmortem: The Company's reorganization continued, not entirely as planned, but well enough. In hind sight, out commitment to intentions that Hero had gathered proved invaluable when tough decision needed to be made.

In class we had been talking about barriers to communications and I was reminded by this story. Communications in that retreat and sometimes during the reorganization process began to crumble as the road got harder and, more particularly, when it wasn't clear where we were headed. Having a clear understanding of the Fathers' intentions help everyone to back up during high stress times to remind ourselves why we were doing all this work.

10 October 2009

White Board: A Community Story

In my Comm class we talked about things that can be done to foster lateral communications in organizations. One suggestion was to turn cubicles and work spaces inward so everyone shares a common area, perhaps even with a white board. Later that afternoon I came home find that one of my roommates had purchased a number of paintings from DI and replaced the old tired paintings with new tired paintings. The change was inspiring and I longed for a white board to add to the mix. Then an idea struck me. What is a white board? It is a white laminated non-porous surface. What else is a white laminated non-porous surface? A refrigerator. So we have converted our fridge into a community white board (thanks to magnetic dry erase markers). Information, quotes, drawing, jokes and points now flow easier through the apartment. I think everyone resident, and a few non-residents, of the apartment have used the pseudo white board. How true the priciple is: give the community a low tech, easy form of self expression and it will come together to use it.

Black leather with gold gilding

Friday I was studying my scriptures and notes that the binding, which has been disintegrating for some time, was about ready to let go of the cover altogether. More than a year ago I had saved money to buy a new set of scriptures and I finely bought them. It is a little odd studying out of my new scriptures, good and bad. I miss many of my old notes and writings but it is also good to have a fresh start and not be reminded of my juvenile writing, comments and highlights. Farewell to the old and hello to the new.

07 October 2009

The great Customer Service ‘Come to Jesus’ Meeting

In my communications class we were talking about barriers to effective communications. One of the most prevalent barriers to communications that my work experienced early in its life was being too nice. I remembered a classic Customer Service ‘Come to Jesus’ meeting.

The problem was that we had good Customer Service staff. They were really good, so good in fact that they handled much work that belonged to other people. We found that they did other’s work so well that the others couldn’t do their own work, partly out of laziness and partly out of inexperience.

In the ‘Come to Jesus’ meeting we changed that we discussed the difference of being helpful and being really helpful. The difference in longevity. To be helpful, to do things for other people that they can handle themselves on a permanent basis, helps that person for a time. The downside is that they then become dependent and are indeed handicapped by the help. Without the continued effort and knowledge that is gained by experience over time you lose the ability to handle new events and even old events that should be routine. In life this can be seen by observing teenagers and young adults whose parents have coddled them their whole like. Then when they leave their parents they are incapable of handling real-life events (e.g. working for an employer, dealing with a parking ticket, having to be a real friend).

Instead of a helpful staff, we wanted a really helpful staff. To be really helpful is to teach people how to do things and then after a reasonable amount of training to stop helping the, thus making them do when they should have learned to do. To work with an old analogy: you need to teach a man to fish, but if you keep feeding him while he is learning then he has little incentive to become good at fishing. There was a marked difference after the ‘Come to Jesus’ meeting in the performance of the other workers. For a time, a painful time, the Customer Service staff helped train and explain how to do things and why they needed to be done but eventually they stopped assisting with the work and expected it to be done.

Over time performance was dramatically in almost every department. Further, people become smarter because they were able to gain experience through continued effort and thus expand their skill set. Over time, a painful time, we as an organization became stronger and more agile.

06 October 2009

Brain theory and Holistic organizations

The other day we learned about the intriguing Brain Theory. In an organization, brain theory applies to a distribution of information. It says that every job in an organization should be known by at least one other person. At first this seems like an ideal organization one capable of recovering from any disaster, hardship or vacation. But such an organization has an inherent flaw: such an intensive level of information sharing would bog down the normal lines of communication until the organization ground to a help. So an alternative is available: allow each secondary section to have moderately out of date information. This would reduce efficiency but also reduce the amount of information flowing and thus let the different section focus on their primary function while allowing secondary information to trickle in over time instead of flooding in constantly. A balance would need to be struck between how often the information would need to be updated versus how efficient you expect the replacement worker to be.

An example of this can be seen, or experienced, when mothers take the night off leaving the father to tend to the children. Although they are part of the same organization (unlike a babysitter/temp worker) the husband is taking on a role that he doesn’t normally fulfill, thus is required to have a secondary knowledge of the mother’s functions. Sometimes the father’s knowledge or skills of keeping up the mother’s routines are lacking enough that the father just lets the children do as they please. Sometimes his secondary knowledge and skills are fresh enough that he can maintain the mother’s pace without missing a step.

05 October 2009

The day for the rest of the year

No longer will I be rushing to the window to look for snow. It snowed today, rather last night. It is a sad day, compared to autumn, but it was inevitable. Some trivia about the First Day of Snow:
  • A salamander (or newt, we're not really sure which it was, though we did name him Sampson and tried to find him a warmer home, more on that later) doesn't do so hot in the freezing cold.
  • No-show socks in boots don't go well together. The boot rubs weird on your feet and pull leg hairs AND worst of all the boot slowly slides the sock down the heel, then under the heel until the whole of the sock is wrapped around the toes. 
  • Boots don't have to be tied to work and in fact with no-show socks I think it works better as the socks don't seem to shift as much and if they do it is much easier to remove the boot and correct the sock.
  • Elazar shouldn't be parked next to the vintage car in the parking lot because the vintage car has a cover and Elazar doesn't. He feels a little bad but he isn't going to get a cover.
  • Idaho snow mocks you on the First Day of Snow by only snowing on trees, grass, cars but not a real snow that sticks to the pavement.
  • The Idaho Snow Coat was a little bit of overkill. It's still sweatshirt weather.
Happy First Day of Snow!

(How ironic that my first mobile blog post is also my 100th blog post.)

04 October 2009

Window Watching

Every morning I look out the window in anxious anticipation. I look for two things: is my car Elazar still there and is there snow on the ground. Thus far I have been pleasantly surprised with a yes and a no. Yes, Elazar is still in the parking lot generally where I left him and no, there is not snow on the ground. In another month I won't even need to look, for the snow at least. It will just be a given. Until then I keep looking.

01 October 2009

Linguistics in Culture

Take one: In my Eastern European Studies class we were recently talking about how myths, legends and superstitions impact the local. A girl in my group commented that already Slovakia has already started to check their language after only 16 years away from the Czech Republic. Previously we had identified that language was a key factors in establishing identity.

Add in two: In my Communications class we talked about how cultures are formed in organizations.

Blend them together: Cultures, in and out of organizations, often form their own languages, or at least their own sayings and lingo. This language helps to strengthen the bond of the culture and creates a sense of belonging.

Take a step back: I recently called our corporate office about an issue with our order processing. During the conversation I blurted out an acronym we use to describe the order process. The corporate guy didn’t have any idea what I was talking about. I said it again thinking I misspoke. I hadn’t. We had in our short four years of existence created a unique diction that even our corporate office didn’t understand. Result: Cultures develop their own unique diction to protect their unique identity, identify outsiders and insiders, feel special and communicate quickly about things important to the culture.