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Third Axle Alternative Print

(from Keep the Joint Running blog )

Management Speak: Good corporate citizen.
-Anonymous KJR citizen.

Ever wonder where ISO 9000 got its name?

Not long ago I was approved as a vendor for a company whose name you’d instantly recognize were I dopey enough to make snide comments about a new client. My new client outsourced its vendor approval process to a company proud of its ISO 9000 certification.

The process began in August and completed the end of December.

That’s how ISO 9000 got its name: It means your processes are certified to have at least 9,000 steps each.

Between us, my contacts and I jumped through a lot of flaming hoops. Which makes little apparent sense. If bringing me in is a profitable proposition, the company should have accelerated the process to get the benefit earlier. Otherwise, someone should have rejected the idea right away so we could all get on with our lives.

We should define terms. A flaming hoop is an activity that is required, but does little or nothing to help evaluate an idea. The only challenge in clearing a flaming hoop is going through the effort - everyone willing to do so passes the test.

Flaming hoops are, by any rational analysis, pure waste, so why would executives who are, in theory, rational and talented create so many of them?

As an exercise in pure reason, make the hypothetical assumption that flaming hoops aren’t examples of the Dilbert or Peter principles … that executives have good reasons for erecting them and mandating their use. Our challenge is to figure out their reasons using nothing but logic and inference.

My hypothesis: It’s an example of what I’m starting to call the Third Axle Alternative.

A third axle is what a motorist welds onto a car instead of fixing the flat tire. It’s someone adding a kludge because they aren’t willing to fix the problem.

Through the miracle of mixed metaphors, a bunch of flaming hoops is a third axle. Here’s how I think it works:

The executives in charge at my new client don’t trust their employees’ business judgment, and especially they don’t trust their employees to exhibit prudent spending discipline. That’s my guess.

If they’re right about their employees they have a big problem, and it’s a tough one to solve. The company would have to do much more than replace its current employees with better ones … and doing just that would require a tremendous effort, for all the obvious reasons.

But it wouldn’t solve the problem, because someone hired all of these bad employees … lots of someones. Leave them in place to hire the replacements and the company will end up with bad employees again. Better to fire everyone who helped hire such an untrustworthy workforce.

>But wait! It’s even worse! Someone hired the bad managers. Those people have to go too. By the time the company has replaced everyone it can’t trust to display good business judgment, up and down the chain of command, it will have lost so much institutional knowledge that it won’t be able to continue to operate.

And so the company welds on a third axle: Flaming hoops. Far from being a display of inept management, it’s a deliberate plan. Make the process of spending sufficiently annoying and employees will think long and hard before putting themselves through it.

The company hasn’t fixed the problem, of course. It has the same untrustworthy employees and the same bad managers it had before. What it’s done instead is to create what would be called in Sarbanes-Oxley-land a “compensating control.”

A third axle.

The fallacy in all of this is presuming the company has so many untrustworthy managers and staff in the first place. Very few employees come to work every day planning to fail at what they do, after all. Even fewer come to work every day with malicious intent.

If employees don’t know what constitutes a good business decision, the root cause isn’t that they’re a bunch of losers. It’s more likely that nobody in management, from the CEO on down, has ever thought to explain what they think a good business decision looks like, let alone how to make one.

Whether it hasn’t been a priority, or too many managers are the sort of egotistical souls who figure the effort would be wasted on mere mortals, or an endless stream of crises has never left the time, or (and it’s very common) it’s because everyone “trusts their gut” and can’t explain how that works in any coherent way … whatever the reason, employees are (to layer on yet another metaphor) left in the dark.

And then blamed for not seeing the light.

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