The Basics, in More Than Just Burgers

As we worked our way through plates of little burgers — the kind we used to eat regularly when we were first building our careers in the business and the kind you won’t find at most working lunches in the corporate towers these days — we soon became very popular among the floating residents of the pond. No matter how many tidbits we threw to them, the same pattern repeated itself: the larger and meaner ducks muscled the smaller ones aside and gulped the food as fast as it came their way. So I would pick out one of the less fortunate and try to connect with its mouth in midair. Timing was everything and sometimes we’d outsmart the greedy ones, but not often. Finishing our sandwiches and having nothing left to share, we watched as the same thing happened when the several other human spectators attempted to feed the ducks. Only then did we return to our conversation from before.

I cleared my throat and began. “Earlier you said the fundamentals of running a business and solving its problems haven’t changed since you were first involved years ago. If that’s the case, and I spend all my time and energies trying to make things run better, how come I have so little to show for my efforts?”

“Sounds something like: you’re working harder but enjoying it less . . . or no matter how much money you throw at them, the problems don’t get solved, or something similar?”

“Yes,” I said, “but more specifically, I’m concerned with the bottomless money pit they call Information Technology.”

“So,” Dan said, “The more appropriate questions might be worded something like:
Spending more on computers, networks, people to operate them and the rest of that growing cost item commonly called Information Technology than you’d like? Or, looking for a way to have those non-technical people within your organization more effectively communicate their needs to those highly technical members of your I/T staff?

“Both fit very well,” I nodded.

“Wish there was a way to be more comfortable in your ability to match the return on your I/T investment with the continuing stream of budgetary expenditures you’re told must be made?
Want to have more protection against technological obsolescence, such that equipment you buy today doesn’t become out of date so quickly?
Are those some of the issues you’re struggling with?”

“You could write my script for me,” I said, my pent-up frustrations starting to surface.

“Well, if that’s true,” he said, “I can tell you for certain that you’re not alone. If you could look back over the years through my eyes you’d see we’re right about where we deserve to be. Not where we had to be, you understand, but where we deserve to be!”

“How’s that?” I asked, still propped against the tree, but feeling my bottom going numb from being in that same position too long. It was clear I had struck upon someone who had a lot to say worth hearing and, if I was lucky, might just help me work through the things that were troubling me. I settled back and prompted him, “I mean, if you have time, I’d love to hear more.”

I was fortunate. Dan was anxious to talk.

“Seems to me the difficulties you’re having with I/T are just part of a much more pervasive situation that afflicts many organizations throughout America, regardless of their size. Let me give you a little part of what I’m talking about. It’s true, most large corporations like Weixx-Corp had become over-staffed and burdened by too many layers of management and support people as the non-stop growth of the past decades gave us too much cash and lulled management into a laxness about spending . . . spending that bordered on gluttony. You may remember that many years ago Deming [Dr. Edwards]* warned American management about such dangers in what he called his ‘Fourteen Points’ and other writings. By the way, did you ever read any of his works or study his principles in any of your college courses?”

“Sure, I guess most everyone in business has at least heard his name before, but I really don’t remember any specifics about his ideas,” I said.

“Well, I had read some things he’d written a while back,” he explained, “but had never really become interested in him until I enrolled in a graduate course in management last fall. You will remember that the company gave us all several retraining options as part of our ‘Career Restart,’ and I took advantage of them! Anyway, our professor only teaches one upper-level graduate course at a time. He earns his real living as a management consultant who specializes in applying the Deming philosophies and associated techniques in all sorts of business situations. Turns out there’s a whole network of Deming followers throughout the world who have their own associations, hold regular meetings of local chapters, conduct workshops and seminars and otherwise follow his teachings in their work,” he enthusiastically explained.

It was good to see Dan so excited. I thought, maybe things haven’t worked out so badly for him after all. He continued, “Among the many fundamental premises Dr. Deming espoused, none are probably more meaningful in today’s corporate climate than those I would combine like this: ‘It’s the responsibility of management to create a plan for consistency of purpose, backed by processes in which employees can succeed, free from arbitrary quotas, slogans and the like.’ ”

“As we have seen over the years, when things go too well, many executives forget to stay lean and alert. In some organizations it has been the practice that new players take over every two to three years as those holding management positions move up or out. Intent on making their marks as they climb the ladder, newcomers often take actions that look good in the short run but can lead to long run problems. It has not been unusual for them to overlook those few in their organizations that are not performing, electing instead to let someone else remove good ole Charlie. The result of a series of similar attitudes by successive managers can be that good ole Charlie (or Cathy) is allowed to stick around. Such underachievers occupy a valuable slot in the organization at the expense of those who must carry the extra load. By the time the impact of their decisions is apparent, the fast-trackers are usually long gone, leaving it to their successors to clean up the mess. That’s happened to many of us. Through it all, we failed to heed Deming’s assertion that managers are responsible for proscribing business processes in which the workers involved can efficiently execute their assigned tasks.

In our pell-mell determination to keep each quarter’s performance ahead of the last, we had lost track of the overriding, long-term effects we were soon to begin experiencing. So when incremental increases in demand gave way to stagnation that caused earnings reports to no longer push stock prices upward, many CEOs, COOs and CFOs found themselves embattled by unhappy stockholders and funds managers. Those who acted early and with the right amount of public fanfare held onto their positions by resorting to major reorganization drives. They typically stripped out large numbers of middle managers and rank-and-file employees, closed and consolidated operating facilities, and otherwise cut costs that would shore up their quarterly operating statements. Others, unable or unwilling to change their directions fast enough to suit their critics, were too often given millions of dollars in golden parachutes and allowed to vacate their offices unscathed in search of a grand retirement as a senior, former captain of American industry, or to take short sabbaticals before surfacing again at the top of some other enterprise. In too many cases, those most responsible for creating the messes escaped the consequences of their actions, leaving it to those under them to pay the price for such excesses.”

He had delivered those remarks, barely stopping to breathe, all the while maintaining intense eye contact with a scene only he could see. It was clear he had spoken from his heart, for his voice and the animation of his body gave away the emotions he seemed unaware were being displayed. Breaking the mood, he turned back to me from the scene he had been viewing inside himself and smiled a little: “But I must warn you, that outburst is just an example of what can happen if you get me started on one of my rants. Though hopefully of interest to you and related to your troubles, don’t be surprised if I wind up telling you more than you want to know,” he said. “It took over three decades for American industry to begin to take heed of the original admonitions from Dr. Deming — those which were the guiding principles on which Japan rebuilt her production capabilities under his guidance beginning in 1950.”

His voice was much stronger and more authoritative now than when we had met at the fire in the park. His body was upright. He was in control the way he had always been when he was managing in our firm. But still his words came across with no sign of anger or harshness, only empathy. “Still want me to continue?” he asked.

“Are you kidding? How much more time can you give me? I wouldn’t want to cause you a problem with the folks here at the park.”

“Good point,” Dan answered as he looked at his watch. “Tell you what,” he said, “I need to finish clearing and burning this pile before I call it a day. Tomorrow’s my day off. If you can and you really want to, we could take this up again in the morning.”

No hesitation on my part. “Name the time and we can meet at my office,” I replied.

“For old time’s sake, I don’t mind trying to help you personally, but I’m not interested in spending any of my time on anything that might benefit that bunch you work for! So if it’s all the same to you, I really don’t want to ever walk inside another Weixx-Corp building.”

“Understandable,” I said. “Don’t blame you a bit. Matter of fact, if it’s okay with you, I’d like to pay you something for your time.”

“I appreciate that, but let’s keep this just between you and me: two old friends. I wouldn’t charge you anything. Besides, there’s no assurance yet that I have anything to say worth anybody paying to hear.”

I dropped that matter and pressed on, “Fine, we’ll let it ride for now. Let’s start with breakfast at Ralph’s around 8:00, and then go to my apartment at the Algonquin.”

Picking up his rake, Dan agreed, “Eight o’clock suits me okay. Always did like the omelets and home fries at Ralph’s. I’ll see you there.” Now he slipped back into his attendant role, and I was going back to my office without the answers I needed — but feeling much relieved by the prospects of starting to get them tomorrow.

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