Monday afternoons at two-thirty. That was the time for our weekly staff meeting. When I joined the company everyone was required to attend it: engineers, technicians and operators. The head of our department, the Director of Quality, led it.
It was a rare week when the meeting started on time. Mondays were also when we had our one-on-one meetings with the Director and he had one of those exchanges going on right before our staff meeting. It always went over. So several of us would gather and wait outside of the meeting room until we were noticed and motioned to come in.
Even with this routine delay I don’t remember a single week when everyone was present before the meeting started. There was frequently at least one person who creeped in late. It wasn’t always the same person either. Some late comers might put on an apologetic face at times, but a few were shamelessly indifferent of their indiscretion.
Just as the meeting never started on time, it didn’t end on time either. I recall a few occasions when I wondered whether the meeting actually ended.
The Director got our meeting going by sharing a subset of the highlights and lowlights of the previous week that he gets in an email from the corporate overlords. We cheered the highlights and bemoaned the lowlights even though none of us could draw a connection to any them with the specific work we did. They did not prompt any actions for our department. They were also divorced from similar points shared in the previous week; presented as stand-alone bits of information. On those occasions when someone did make a tentative connection, it unleashed pent up frustrations with people feeding off of each other to blame some nonpresent “they.” So what purpose did this update serve? I couldn’t tell you.
Following the update, the Director shared his schedule for the current week. It always showed back-to-back meetings, sometimes overlapping, from the start of the workday to its end, for the whole week. So when did he have time to think and plan, to draw up an agenda for his meetings, to follow-up on assignments, to analyze, understand, and guide the performance of the system he was charged to direct? At first I had felt sympathy. What sort of monstrous organization drives its people like this? But it didn’t last long. I recognized much of it was self imposed and not a demand of the organization. It was his way of showing others how busy and engaged he was, how hard he was working, how committed he was to the company. It was all light and no heat. Perhaps I’m being harsh, but I don’t think so.
After he finished his update he would ask each staff member if they had anything to share. Most did not. Some, though, shared information on what they were doing in excruciating detail. Usually it was about “unexpected” hurdles, blocks, or breakdowns. They were the same from week to week. This was another opportunity to vent about those others who didn’t follow procedures, the unreasonable surge in demand for our services, or how the system is broken and needs fixing. Who is going to fix it? How should it be fixed? What resources are needed for the fix? That requires a plan. But when is there time and space for that?
Once a month the Director would remind everyone to calculate and report metrics they were responsible for. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that at least one was delayed. Not always the same one, but it came with all the usual excuses.
That was the ritual.
Companies have been proudly proclaiming that they hire only the best and brightest. Ignoring the fact that this is a bogus claim – personal experience at a dozen different companies has demonstrated otherwise – a firm would find it all but impossible to function with the best and brightest.
Back in 1994 Dr Russell Ackoff shared an example that elegantly explains why.
I read in the New York Times recently that 457 different automobiles are available in the United States. Let’s buy one of each and bring them into a large garage.
Let’s then hire 200 of the best automotive engineers in the world and ask them to determine which car has the best engine. Suppose they come back and say Rolls Royce has the best engine. Make a note of it.
“Which one has the best transmission?”, we ask them and they go run tests and come back and say the Mercedes does.
“Which one has the best battery?” [They] come back and say the Buick does.
And one by one, for every part required for an automobile, they tell us which is the best one available.
Now we take that list and give it back to them and say “Remove those parts from those cars. Put them together into the best possible automobile,” because now we’ll have an automobile consisting of all the best parts.
What do we get? You don’t even get an automobile, for the obvious reason that the parts don’t fit!
The performance of the system depends on how the parts fit, not how they act taken separately.
A significant portion of organizational excellence depends on how employees interact with one another i.e. how they fit together, not how they act individually.
Dr. Ackoff’s entire talk titled “Beyond Continual Improvement” is worth listening to.