Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Business Carol

I'm not Charles Dickens by any stretch of imagination or creativity or hubris. However, I offer this tale as a bit of entertainment because it was a nightmare for me one restless night...

I had recently talked to a company about how organizational alignment could transform their performance. Frustratingly, the company president wasn't seeing the other side of the chasm. Admittedly, it is a leap of faith to understand just how powerful alignment can be, if you've never experienced an organization that's humming like a well-tuned engine and transmission system. That night I fell asleep thinking a little about what I could have or should have said.

Around two in the morning, I was awakened by a moaning in the corner of the bedroom. It was very dark. Having been asleep though, it didn't take long for my eyes to adjust to dimness. Also there was some moonlight coming in the south-facing window, reflecting off the backyard snow. In the corner, I spied a figure in work overalls and calf-length, leather safety boots. On his head was a bump cap while safety glasses dangled onto his chest from a cord around his neck. I shouted, "Hey!" in surprise and a weak attempt to regain some upper-hand of surprise. Anyone who snuck into my room was probably not going to be surprised if I awoke, maybe only by "when".

"Sorry to disturb you, sir," whispered the man. "I'm here to give you a message."


"Yes, I'm the Ghost of Business Past. I need to show you something so that you will maintain your evangelistic zeal to improve businesses around the world."

"Well, thank you for the compliment. However, you say, the Ghost of Business Past, is that like the Ghost of Christmas Past from Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol'?"  "Yes, sir," he replied. "But unlike that experience, my brothers, the Ghosts of Business Present and Future, and I have decided to spare you any visits by them. Since you're not like Ebenezer Scrooge, we don't need to 'tell' you to get a better attitude about business (or Christmas) three times. We decided only one of us needed to visit you and I got the short straw."

"What are we supposed to do at this visit?" I asked.

"I will take you to a place where the business is still run as many are, with practices that should have been relegated to the distant past. Unfortunately, the boss doesn't get it and doesn't see that his methods aren't working."

"Shouldn't you be visiting him in the night time?" I queried. He replied with a sigh, "I suppose you're right. We find that when we do, those kinds of managers just close their eyes, ignore us till the morning and blame it on a bad slice of pizza or ice cream. They never learn." With those words, he raised his right hand and my bedroom dissolved, becoming brighter as we entered a daylit scene. It looked like a lumber yard, and we were standing outside the gate to the materials area. As we entered through the gate, a person who obviously was an employee put down some cement blocks he was re-stacking and walked towards us.

"Can I help you, sir?" he asked, ignoring my ghost friend, who didn't appear ghostly to me, but may have been imperceptible to the yard worker. Quickly creating a reason to be there, I replied, "Yes, I'm trying to finish my basement so I'd like to get some 2x4's and sheetrock."

"Okay, hold on on one minute." And he disappeared into the building. Another gentleman appeared followed by the yard worker. "Hello, I'm Joe, the owner of the place. I understand you'd like to get some studs and sheetrock."

"Yes, that's right." After we talked about the dimensions of the basement and calculated the number of boards and panels I needed, he turned to the yard worker, as if he hadn't realized that his employee had been there the whole time. "What are doing here? You should have gone back to stacking the blocks. But now go help this guy load some studs and sheetrock. Hurry!" The yard worker ran off toward the back of the yard where, I presumed, the studs and sheetrock were stored. I followed, trailed silently by the Ghost of Business Past. As we walked in the direction the employee ran, we noticed many other people working silently and slowly on various tasks around the yard.  We saw a few who would finish apparently one task, and then head off toward the direction of the office, where Joe went after talking to us. I saw one or two employees exit the building after Joe entered, and headed in different directions in the yard. Obviously, they had been given instructions by Joe and were going off to implement them. As I walked, people looked at me with suspicion, clearly not one of them but they weren't sure the purpose of my presence in the yard. I stopped alongside a woman who was resupplying a rack that held baseboard molding. When I got her attention, I asked, "Excuse me. Can you tell me if I should pull my truck through here to load the studs and sheetrock or is there another way to get to the area where they're stored?" With a slight fearful expression and dismay, she looked like she wanted to answer my question but was unsure whether she should. I couldn't tell if she knew the answer or not. I wondered what the cause of the fear and dismay. She didn't say anything for 15-20 seconds (which can feel like minutes when there's no response to a request). "I'm sorry, sir, I can't help you. You need to go back up to the office and ask my manager, Joe, that question," she informed me. "Really? You work here. You must know if it's okay to drive my truck through here," I pushed her a little.

"I can't answer you, sir...or I'll get in trouble," she replied. This was confusing. How would someone get in trouble for answering a question? The answer was obvious the longer I stayed around the business. Joe was a yeller, believing that instructions carried more impetus by the volume of the sound that accompanied the directive. He also berated anyone who ventured an opinion about how something could be done. As I wandered around the yard, watching the employees and interacting with them, I saw that they had no self-esteem. It had been driven out of them. It became apparent that anyone who may have had self-assurance to take some initiative didn't stay long with the company. There was no level of morale with this group. They were sad and beat-down. Their state entailed a low level of productivity, which showed by the evidence of a lot of things that could be done to improve the operations, but weren't. Also, there was a low level of helpfulness, which affected me and decreased my desire to do any business with this company.

After hours of trying to stir a spark of collaboration, empowerment, and drive, and excitement about what they could accomplish, I gave up. I was living in a nightmare where the potential was so great but there wasn't any interest in converting the potential into reality. Joe continued in his bad management style. He thought he was getting the best results he could with the poor staff he had. The employees thought that all businesses and bosses operated this way. They couldn't see any different way of operating.

Joe approached me and said, "Look, if you're going to hang out here any longer, either buy something or I'll put you on the payroll. You're upsetting these guys. You want to work here? I'm always looking for good help."

"No, no, no..." I awoke in a sweat and sheets and blankets wound around ankles and arms, making me feel a little hog-tied. When I realized it had been a dream, I took a deep breath. But then the Ghost of Business Past stepped out of the shadowy corner, and exhorted me, "Don't forget. There are lots of businesses like this. You've got to find a way to the owners and the employees that there's a better way. It's up to you." And then he was gone.

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