'The Story of John Rogers'

The Kitchen Cabinet

While attending two other sessions, Dan and I had talked with a number of those who had gone through similar experiences. From those we encountered, our kitchen cabinet — as we had begun to refer to the group — grew to eight. All of them were intrigued by our project and eager to help us.

Sensing that perhaps it was time to move to another level with our sessions, I put forward an idea that had been forming in my mind: “While there’s never any certainty how things will turn out, it occurs to me that our individual backgrounds in such a diverse array of businesses might offer us not only the opportunity to learn from each other and be supportive, but could establish the foundation for a multi-disciplined consulting organization. So I was thinking we could follow Ann’s lead and take turns relating the particulars that brought each of us here. The speaker could highlight the conditions, facts and circumstances of their previous employer and we could all raise questions for clarification. Acting as a committee of the whole, we could thoroughly explore causes and effects, and seek to reach consensus regarding the current and future prospects for the organization under consideration.”

“Sounds involved, if you ask me.” It was Carl Houston, a former sales executive who had joined us at the suggestion of the church pastor. He shrugged, “But, we’re here because we’re each looking for a way to deal with what’s happened to us, and anything that offers that hope is probably worth giving a try.”

Dan was pleased with Carl’s reaction and moved to capitalize on it. “To give us the best chance of producing meaningful results from those… what we might call, case studies… I volunteer to take general notes on my laptop that came to me compliments of good ole Weixx-Corp! And, each of you can take turns entering key points on some wall charts so we can all see the evolving picture. One objective will be to determine whether and how our observations might relate specifically to John’s problems. Beyond that, we might consider whether we believe each major topic has broader implications for the fundamentals of businesses in general. Finally, we can each have copies of my notes and the charted information for our individual uses here, and later on.”

Since much of what had been discussed so far was intended to help me, I felt it was my turn to comment. “Wow, Dan, your mind really has been working overtime! I certainly look forward to participating.”

“Thanks,” he replied. “Once tuned in to the task, everything sorta flowed and you just heard some of the results. But, these are just my ideas… I’d like to hear what everybody else thinks.” Ann’s response was immediate and enthusiastic: “Let’s do it! We can adjust as we go along.”

The others agreed, the pattern for each case presentation was set, and Oliver Allen would be responsible for the topic at the next meeting.

Ignore Principles… Lose Character and More

She had raised three children and put them through college on her own after her husband died from a ruptured aortic aneurysm. What with the kids and her job, she had never taken the time to socialize much, or she might have remarried. About the time she should’ve been able to take time for herself, her employer eliminated her job as they closed something like two hundred offices across the country!

Unaware of our approach, Ann was quite animated in her conversation with a man who appeared to be about her age. They were drinking coffee and carrying on about something unintelligible from my vantage point. Whatever it was about, it seemed to have them excited. As we approached for introductions, they turned our way, Ann’s expression turning to a most pleasant, warm and disarming smile as she greeted us. The preliminaries out of the way, the couple soon told us they had just recently moved on with their working lives. Ann was now settled in at a local software company, handling a host of administrative functions, including inventory and accounts receivable. She seemed pleased with herself as she described her duties and the simplicity of the small company where she now works.

Addressing us with a question that sounded like she really didn’t expect an answer, Ann said, “You know what’s really sad about what’s been going on? Ours was a company that, long before I came aboard, had built itself into a leader by closely following some basic principles focused on delivering first quality products and services. Fair treatment of its customers and employees were given the highest priorities. From the first day I came to work as a very young, very green clerk, my manager made it clear that everyone was expected to get along and treat each other with respect at all times. It goes without saying we were required to demonstrate those same philosophies when dealing with our customers.”

Ann smiled at us, pleased with her recitation. Since we were well acquainted with the saga of her former employer, we understood what she was saying. Indeed, even the casual observer of the business world knew how that company, once thought to be solid as a rock, found itself in jeopardy of coming apart as the decade of the 1980s came to a close. In a move that caught most by surprise, the firm’s board brought in an accomplished executive from outside the company, as well as outside its industry, to turn things around. Indeed, after some drastic changes that sent shock waves throughout the organization, the company’s financial performance improved dramatically. Stockholders were first relieved, and then ecstatic. Surviving executives and employees were first relieved and then encouraged. Competitors were first disappointed that the demise didn’t continue, and then pressured to take similarly drastic measures to preserve themselves.

While financial analysts and the stock markets generally showed collective investor approval of the actions taken by those computer firms, very little attention was given to the severity of alterations to the longstanding character of those proud corporations. After all, if the quarterly earnings rose to new levels and continued strong, who would have reason to question further? Largely ignored and dismissed were those who attempted to draw attention to the potentially harmful effects of such departures from the long-standing principles that had so effectively guided their company for decades. Likewise, nothing was said regarding the loss of know how as each of their seasoned veterans left the systems engineering and software development divisions of the company. Once again, short run financial gains were allowed to overshadow balanced considerations of the potential for long run problems.

Dick Leighton was Ann’s companion. As soon as he said he had earlier spent almost twenty years in local banking, I could have predicted why he attended these meetings. It turned out he had been a senior vice-president when his bank merged with what was then a new regional holding company. It had since been caught up in two other consolidations as the reach and strength of major bank holding companies swept throughout the banking industry, coast-to-coast.

“Ann’s doing well and we’re all proud for her,” he announced. Remarkably, Dick told us he was happy now in the fast-food business as manager of a pizza parlor, working for his brother-in-law. “Like so many others I’ve encountered, once I got over the fear of being unemployed and the blow to my pride, I found renewed confidence in myself. I remember so well getting that first paycheck and counting my blessings for it. And you know what else? I discovered what I’d heard others say before — there really is life after a career at the bank after all!” Others nodded agreement.

Meeting the Members

She stood above six feet in her stocking feet and had blonde hair cut stylishly short in the way of the upwardly-bound career woman. So carefully groomed from head to the manicured toenails visible through her open-toed shoes, Lisa Charles epitomized a sharp, professional woman of the last decade who was now meeting the new millennium head-on. The tailored, straight skirted suit was the required power dark blue — Probably by Ann Taylor of New York™, I thought, because it looked like those I’d often seen in their store windows near our offices — complete with high standup collar, long-sleeved white blouse, and burgundy print scarf arranged in the shape of a man’s tie. Understandably, then, she commanded attention wherever she went, and was certainly the center of attention in this room full of men and women who were mostly former middle managers and corporate execs.

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back to all our regulars, and a special welcome to those who are visiting our group for the first time.” Her voice was clear and confident, her words crisp and easy to absorb, demonstrating part of the several reasons why she had successfully moved to head public relations at Margo Technologies. All of those attributes and her outward demeanor were, however, masking the fear she shared with just about everybody else in the room. All felt the crush deep within themselves — that self-doubt borne by the prevailing sense that somehow losing their jobs marked them as failures. That was their common fellowship: the thing they didn’t really want to talk about outside these walls, because somehow, doing that required facing realities they felt they weren’t really strong enough to handle.

As we watched from the back of the auditorium, Dan quietly explained, “The group comes together like this every Tuesday and Thursday nights starting at 6:30 and continuing until around 8:00 or 8:30. Acting as though members of a large management group, they take turns giving reports of their job-hunting activities, offering copies of any job descriptions or news about openings they discovered since the last meeting. Not often, but occasionally, someone actually brings copies of their new employment papers to show the others their trophies.”

Dan would have continued, but just then the audience began applauding as a sandy-haired man who looked to be in his late thirties told of several new jobs about to become available. I later learned his name was Chris Green, age 40, who had spent more than fifteen years processing chemicals in the dye house of a textile manufacturer. His job had literally gone south — across the border into Mexico, leaving him with a master’s degree in chemistry and lots of experience, but nowhere locally to ply his trade. There was now no way for him to bring home the more than $100,000 annual income, plus benefits for which he had invested his early years to deliver to his family.

In an upbeat voice, he said that a large assisted living facility was due to open just a couple of miles away in a few weeks. “Though most of the jobs call for medical training, from licensed practical nurses to registered nurses, they will also need a couple of dozen orderlies to help with patients and to perform essential cleaning duties ’round the clock, everyday.” Referring to his notes, he continued with all eyes riveted to his face, “…and another eight or so will be hired to perform routine clerical duties in the accounting office and in medical records.”

From everything I’d heard before I knew this was certainly good news, and I found myself beginning to feel the excitement with them. When I heard his next statements, my stomach felt like it had suddenly been punched flat, removing my breath and along with it, the warm feeling of just an instant before.

“Now,” he continued, “the rates of pay range from $8.50 an hour at the low end to more than $25 an hour for experienced RNs. And, important for all of us is the health insurance and dental coverage that goes with every position.” Those most basic benefits each had always taken for granted in their previous lives were now sought-after luxuries for the families represented in that room. Never again would any one of them become so unmindfully spoiled.

“So I’ve brought plenty of applications for everybody that’s interested,” he said as he placed several on the front table. Several rose to claim a form, each saying a word of thanks for what they hoped would open the way for them to return to work. Seeing how genuinely glad they felt to have something new to pursue, I thought better of the emptiness in my stomach. My thoughts spoke to me as my mind sought to reason through it all. I looked deliberately into their faces as they returned to their seats, and the voice inside me said, “Okay, so that’s a lot less than many of them were making before, and those jobs aren’t the most desirable by any means . . . they look like they’ve swallowed their pride and are adjusting . . . maybe they’ll be even happier when they finally do land a new job of any kind and start putting themselves back to productive activity . . . .”

That was as far as my conversation with myself went before Dan’s voice returned me to the conscious world. Determined to continue his mission of getting me thoroughly immersed in the group, he nudged me and led me around the fellowship hall. “You take the case of Ann Gustavson over there,” he said, indicating an attractive brunette who looked to be in her mid-forties. “Now there’s another story unto itself. I mean she was the best there was at managing the installed equipment inventory and accounts receivable associated with the local office of a giant computer manufacturer …” His voice trailed off. Then, as if he’d just tuned back in, he said, “… we’ll hear from her soon at one of our meetings.”

Though he had witnessed these moments many times, Dan’s facial expressions showed distress as his normally calm demeanor showed signs of his pent-up frustrations. Trying to move him past his passions, it was my turn to nudge forward, so I led the way into the room.

New Beginnings

Having been alerted to expect Dan and escort him to my office, Barbra had been waiting for him with a visitor’s badge when he approached the front desk. Minutes later he was seated at my conference table nursing a fresh cup of hot decaffeinated tea, made with milk and Splenda™, the way Dan had said he liked it.
Wanting to avoid any awkwardness, I hit it head on, “Not too traumatic coming back, I hope.”

“A little strange sensation just as I came in, but no, I’m fine with this. Having Barbra down there was a nice stroke. She’s always had such a pleasant manner about her, she made me feel good about being here again. Thanks.”

“Her idea. She said she’s always liked you from those days when she worked in your group in Plant 6.”

Settling into a chair at my conference table, Dan came right to the point. “After our last talk, I spent a lot of time pondering the various ways I might help with your predicament. I mapped out the several areas of the business you said needed attention, and the result looked an awful lot like the makings of an ‘org chart’!”

When he was in his comfort zone, talking about things he knew a lot about, nobody I’d ever seen was better at cutting through and nailing down what needed to be done than Dan. With that, he unfolded a legal-size sheet on which his notations formed a crudely drawn layout of our basic departmental structure.

“As you see, and as we might expect,” he continued without looking up or pausing for anything I might want to add, “the things we said needed addressing can be arranged in a relatively orderly fashion. That being the case, we can start by examining the relationships among the major processes as they exist now – what I would call the Today Picture, or no, maybe we’d better call it the Before Picture,” and he crossed out the old wording, entering the new ones instead. He quickly sketched in smaller, empty boxes and symbols under each major box on the chart to represent each process flow. “The way things happen today is represented by each major part of your organization.” Along the bottom of the page, his pencil deftly produced a big square in which he entered a title to identify it as corresponding to each of the sections at the top. “Next, we can show just how we think the After Picture should appear.” As he spoke, his expression showed his confidence was high, and as he concluded, his hand swept across the page, inviting my perusal.

Looking at me expectantly, Dan fell silent, giving me the chance to respond. “Well, Dan, I really appreciate all the thought you’ve put in on this thing up to now . . . ” I couldn’t help it, but I was struggling with my words, trying to hide both my befuddlement, and my disappointment with what I now saw as nothing new or exciting. After all, we’d covered this approach earlier, and I was really looking for something truly new, different and inspiring, only to see what looked like old news. My first concern was to avoid at all costs the possibility that my reaction now might really hurt Dan’s feelings — he’d somehow learned to cope with all the trauma and mental anguish associated with having to leave the company, and the last thing I wanted was to cause him more grief.

Cautiously I moved the conversation forward, “I’m sure I must be missing something, Dan. I mean, I see and understand where you’re coming from here, but it isn’t really clear how all of this ties together. Can you help me?”

All of a sudden he started laughing and I braced myself, thinking surely I hadn’t just tripped him over the edge . . . surely all his good intentions (and mine as well) weren’t resulting in his falling apart?

“Of course!” he cried as he bounced the palm of his hand against his forehead. My stomach tightened like someone had just punched me and I became rigid as though expecting another blow to follow.

“I’m sorry, John. Of course it doesn’t make any sense ’cause you see, in my delight with my own grand design I forgot to fill in the most important part. Look here,” he said as he pulled a smaller page from his inside jacket pocket, “I should have placed this section between the Before and After parts to show just how these concepts are supposed to work.” A new line of squares appeared from left to right across the middle of the larger page, each bearing the name of someone I didn’t recognize.

“Now, as you can see, I simply run these red arrows from top to bottom, linking all three rows to each other, and voila! We see the source I propose we use for unearthing just what stands between you and your people as you work today, with the better tomorrow you envision. And as you’re no doubt wondering, the people whose names appear on the chart are possible resources for helping examine the Weixx-Corp situation.”

I urged him on: “I’m all ears!

“Well, you know very often we have what we need to solve problems right under our noses, but we’re too close and involved to see ’em. I told you when we first met in the park that I’d found such inner peace once I’d gotten past the initial shock of being laid off. What I didn’t tell you then was how important the New Beginnings support group was to my healing process. You’ve probably never even heard of them, have you, John?”

I shook my head, and Dan said, “No, I didn’t think so. There’d be no reason for people to know about us unless they, or someone close to them, had fallen into the situations we have all experienced. “Several months ago, it became apparent to a group of ministers, priests, and rabbis that a growing number of members from their congregations were suffering from the effects of all the layoffs and outright firings taking place in local businesses. As members of the local Ministerial Council, they recognized that all those in need required counseling on an individual basis, but they also needed a means to continue having interaction with peers and former colleagues; a means to continue socializing on a more or less professional basis.
You see, John, as soon as you lose your job you have this overwhelming feeling you’re lost — that you’ve failed. Often in the middle of the night, as well as every morning when you wake up, you’re hit with the chilling realization you have no place to go. You have no way to bring home a paycheck. You can’t go to the work place that day — the same place where you associated with so many people only yesterday. And, as I told you a while back, you feel so damned ashamed because you’re certain you’ve hurt your family. You’ve let them down. That, somehow, you’ve been found lacking in the most profound way, and you may even really begin to resent your former co-workers who still have their jobs. There’s more, of course, but trust me, it’s a terrible thing to go through and I hope you never have it happen to you.”

If I expected to see tears or any sadness in his eyes, neither was there. Though his voice told of the pain and frustration he had endured, Dan was still at peace with himself and I was glad. I, however, felt the sting of it in my watery eyes as I recognized the truth of his words, and thought how many people I’d seen enter the ranks Dan was describing. For a moment or two, I was also reminded how little I had known about their personal circumstances one those individuals had left our ranks, and that realization added to the emotions now aroused in me.

Appearing not to notice my reaction, Dan rose out of his chair to lean over the table and place the drawings closer for me to see as he explained, “So, here’s the deal. The people I’ve named in these blocks were chosen because most of them have spent as many or more years in their specialty areas as you and I have in ours.” Tapping on each box as he went along, Dan underscored the relevance to me of his idea: “Represented here are people who were and are damned good in their specialty areas. They span finance, product development, marketing, sales, HR, warehousing and logistics, general management, administration, and I/T – every vital area of most business organizations today. Though the progress of these people towards finding a new direction for themselves necessarily varies from person to person, each is committed and most will eventually succeed. But, it takes time and a lot of patience with themselves and patience on the part of their family and friends. In the meantime, it’s my belief the pace and burden of their journeys can be accelerated by active involvement in your project the same way mine has.”

There seemed to be only one appropriate response for me. “Okay, Dan, but how?”

“Our next move is to have you attend one of our meetings at the Episcopal church across the street from the library. You’ll see how the meetings are run, get to hear something about the backgrounds and predicaments of each member

Dan was now a man on a mission, and I sensed it could well prove to be a new beginning for me as well.

Understanding Processes is Fundamental

At the end of our walk, we entered the hotel and went up to my apartment on the top floor. I opened the draperies to let the sun flood inside, clicked on the coffee maker and opened the chalkboard and flip chart cabinet. Placing some markers on the table in front of Dan, I indicated we were ready to proceed.

Picking up a blue marker and standing in front of the charts, Dan gave me a full-faced smile and said, “Remember, he who holds the marker has control!”

I certainly wasn’t about to challenge him.

“Now, to begin with, everything you’re concerned with has to start at the most fundamental levels of your various departments. It starts with a detailed understanding of how your people perform their various jobs today.”

“You mean, how they use their computer terminals?” I asked.

“Eventually we will look at the roles your computers play, but first I’m talking about the step-by-step procedures of each employee from the moment a transaction of some type is started until that transaction has been completed and accounted for… I mean every little step, so we can clearly appreciate what is involved on the part of each player in the entire process. Only when we have traced and flow charted all of those seemingly routine, mundane functions can we begin to truly understand what our processes are doing for us . . . or to us.”

Tapping the wall charts for emphasis and making certain I was still with him he continued, “And, I might add, we should draw each work flow on big charts like these, pin ‘em on the wall in their proper order, side by side, and have everyone involved look them over together to be sure they’re accurate. You will be surprised at everything that goes on with each transaction. You and everyone else taking part will see — probably for the first time ever — just what each person has to do, how it’s done, and how what each one does affects the others!”

I nodded and he continued.

“I think about such processes sorta like a river that flows from north to south. The water is your information: as it moves downstream, it comes in contact with different people who either help it along or slow it down. Some help keep the water moving, free from impurities, but others slow it down and even pollute the stream with their garbage. When stuff is thrown into the water, guess what happens?”

“Well, I guess it creates problems for those waiting downstream. If a problem is serious enough, it may make those who drink it quite ill,” I replied without hesitation.

“Exactly! And if the stuff as I call it, is big enough, it can even slow down or stop the flow,” Dan pointed out emphatically. ”Worse, when the stuff winds up in someone’s in basket or e-mail reader in today’s world, and is allowed to stay there without receiving attention, the flow is disrupted.”

“You’re talking about the typical bottlenecks we experience in various departments all the time?” I queried, beginning to see where he was going with this.

“Right again!” he crowed. “So, without dragging all this out any further, since you obviously catch my drift here, let’s skip to the bottom line: once we have this charting and reviewing completed, with the help of everyone, we can identify and make any changes needed to minimize the pollution . . . the result should be a more efficient sequence of the functions each person must perform. You see that?”

“Yes, but Dan, you remember I asked earlier how you found your way to working in this park and you said you’d tell me more later. From what you’ve just been telling me and the way you’ve said it, I have to think there must be connection. If you’re where you can, I’d really like to hear what went on after you were no longer with us at WEIXX that led you here.”

Because I had not been willing to take the risk that reminding him of unpleasant memories would cause Dan to withdraw from me, I had accepted his short explanation that morning in the diner and not mentioned it again since. But he had said how contented he’d become with his new life, and it must be true because now he didn’t hesitate to respond.

“You see, when I found myself on the street for the first time in so many years, I quickly saw I wasn’t alone. Far from it! Oh, if you search the want ads, talk with employment agencies, or do a search on the Internet you can find dozens of openings every day. They all look and sound very hopeful until you take a real close look,” he offered.
“As you might appreciate, I heard from our old buddies over at Xavier Instruments, with a very tempting offer. But, you know, while that was sure gratifying and reassuring to my ego, I just couldn’t see myself on their team. Something about crossing over to an enemy I’d fought for so long just stuck in my craw… giving me heartburn as I considered whether or not to take them up on their interests!”

“Yeah, that’s understandable,” I agreed, “But you would’ve been a great catch for them if you’d been at all tempted.”

“Yes, well maybe so, but you remember how it was when we first started at Weixx-Corp. We were so proud to be a part of the tradition of that company, surrounded as we were by the veterans who were such pros. They had so many war stories about how they had grown up in the business as the company had grown up around them and we just ate it up! After all, they were doing well, financially, and they dressed the part. They were hitting home runs in their territories and we just couldn’t help admiring them, envisioning for ourselves that one day soon we would enjoy such success…”

His eyes had taken on a distant look as his expression signaled he was no longer seeing me in the present. Instead, I was sure he was seeing himself several years back as he had lived the scenes he was referencing. Seeming to return now to the present, he continued, “So, as we all developed such strong loyalties to each other and to the company, we were immunizing ourselves from ever becoming a part of those other guys! I know you remember how that was – we were trained never to mention competitors by name. And, it went without saying you risked being fired if you ever disparaged a competitor!”

“Oh yes, I do remember, I said. “And, though some other fundamental practices have been altered since you left us, I must tell you that that much about Big W hasn’t changed. Unfortunately, it’s also still the case that most of our competitors haven’t learned how important not talking negatively about competitors has been to the respect we enjoy from our customers. I say, unfortunately because we’ve both seen how disruptive it can be to have a customer’s attention distracted by false or misleading statements, putting us in the position of having to defend and disprove.”

Dan was right with me. “How true that is. And usually, as a result of successfully dispelling such claims, we emerged in an even stronger position with the customer. But, let me return to your earlier point regarding what I encountered once I was forced to join the job market. Unlike what you and I remember from the time we first joined Weixx-Corp, when I was approached by Xavier, some quick research among a couple of their folks I had known over the years, made it clear that Xavier’s practice was to cut overhead by hiring younger people to take the jobs of the more experienced. Like most companies today, Xavier has the reputation of preferring people with one or more degrees, who haven’t yet taken on financial responsibilities for a family, a mortgage, cars, vacations, medical bills, and the rest. In short, people who can work for half the amount paid to those whose jobs they’re being hired to replace!”

Following his drift, I offered, “And the expectation is those people with so little experience should handle the tasks previously performed by you and your contemporaries?”

“Former contemporaries,” he corrected, still showing no more emotion; but the strength of his voice underscored his confidence in what he was saying. “So you go for interviews and show them all the things you’ve done, places you’ve been, and so on. Things that in some cases happened long before those handling the interviews were even born. And, as I said, they never just come right out and say you’re too old. They spell out the compensation plan, talk about the long hours you’d be expected to work, and show you a little cubicle in the middle of a huge room. Everything makes it clear you’d be starting at or near the bottom . . . especially so many years after you’d thought you’d paid your dues and should be doing much better.”

He stopped, looking distressed and pensive for just a moment, before continuing in his earlier upbeat fashion. I thought, Where are people with such pride, such dignity today? Where have they gone? Or, are they still around, just hidden away behind other rakes, tending other invisible fires in countless other out-of-the-way places so society doesn’t even have to see what we’re doing to each other?

Dan must have read my thoughts, because he quickly brought me back to earth. “If you’re feeling sorry for me right now, you can just put those thoughts away,” he said. “When we get off the train, with its constant rushing along, we get the chance to slow down long enough to let the horizon come into better view. It brings some things about our lives into our consciousness in the same way that we sometimes get reminded when we attend a funeral.”

I didn’t move or speak.

Then he continued, “You know what I mean? It’s like we get to rise above ourselves and see where we are, where we’ve been, and even sometimes a glimpse of what’s ahead — and we realize how cheaply we spend our days. Ever had that feeling?”

“Sure have,” I replied. “It lasts just long enough to get me past the trip to the cemetery — maybe a few hours afterward if I spend time with the grieving family,“ I said, speaking to Dan. “So, to paraphrase, you were repeatedly kept out to pasture, is that it?”

“Right,” he said, “but after I had several such treatments from just about everybody I approached for a job, I let myself indulge in some bouts with booze and feeling sorry for myself. Then one day I decided to take stock of my situation to concentrate on just what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I wanted to be certain I wouldn’t be the subject of some future funeral without having had the satisfaction of doing what I really wanted to do — not just that which was expected of me.”

“Good for you, Dan. There’ve been times I’ve thought about doing something like that. Only I’d lose my nerve when I thought about how much time and effort I’d put into my career. Then, there’s the very real matter of the amount of money we need every month, just to live as we do now.”

“Didn’t take much courage,” he laughed. “Necessity — that’s what made me do it! Didn’t have much of an alternative, so I put aside everything I’d been doing on my previous jobs and made a list of the things I really liked to do but didn’t do too often. Wasn’t a very long list, as it turned out, but I remembered all the times that usually made me feel the best: times that I often thought about trying to repeat when things got tough at Weixx-Corp. I remember sitting on the porch of that big house we had out in Winchester. You remember being there for my fiftieth — we had the pool, lots of trees, and several acres to walk around with our kids and our dogs, but you could do so without meeting anyone outside the family.”

I nodded, vaguely recalling a few drinks on the pool deck that night. Couldn’t really remember much else, or even when that had been. My mind just wasn’t working well these days – no doubt clogged with too much of the here and now.

“I came to realize how often I had sat on that back deck and longed to be out in one of those cabins we sometimes slipped away to in the hills. It disturbed me when I thought how often I had been on the big home place wanting to be in those hills among the trees enjoying a simpler way of life, but I had never once sat out there in the hills and longed to be back in the rat race in town! At that moment, I shouted loud enough to create an echo: something’s gotta change here! Something’s not right when I work day and night to keep up so many seemingly tangible things, leaving so little time to do what I really want to do. Of course there was no one else there to hear it, but I later thought that that was my way of being sure I didn’t forget such an important self-discovery. So I decided to turn my intense interest in nature into my full time vocation, and spend every day out among the squirrels, chipmunks, the birds and trees, with just enough people contact to satisfy my social tendencies, but not so much as to get me over-exposed. I also teach a class twice a week at the community college and when we add what they pay me to the money and benefits from the park, Carol and I have enough to live in a three bedroom bungalow out in Forrest Park. We drive a couple of cars that get us there and back, eat a pretty healthy diet, see a play now and then, and we’re quite content.” He paused and smiled at me. “Maybe that’s more than you wanted to know, but I feel better anyway.”

Satisfied with his performance, Dan sank to the ground and gave me the most contented facial expression I had seen from him since all this dialog had begun.

“Sounds like the kinda situation everyone I know wishes they could be in.” Nothing else needed to be said on that subject, so I turned the conversation to what I hoped would be a welcome direction for Dan. “The real reason I wanted us to meet now was to see if an idea I’ve been working on makes sense to you.” As I heard myself beginning, it occurred to me I was wound tight, ready to carry my thoughts through to some conclusions in much the same way as Dan had been allowed to do earlier.

“Over the past few days I’ve been thinking some more about my challenges and the things you and I have covered since that first day in the park. You know how you reminded me of the straightforward techniques to tackling problems we used in earlier times? I say we used to use because whether we were talking about applying data processing to solve problems or simply analyzing production problems to eliminate bottlenecks in manufacturing — or other situations confronting us in the business — we often used logical flow diagrams. Sometimes we’d write our notes on flip chart paper. We even called the results the Before Picture the way you did, and used it for comparison against the After Picture to identify gaps in our processes requiring decisions for change. Where needed, we also used our own versions of decision trees to help us reach conclusions at various junctions in each segment of the operations. It has all come back so clearly now, and I thank you for jogging my memory so effectively.”

“Glad to do it,” Dan said. “Tell me, what do you think is the most important difference between the way you all have been approaching these matters in recent times versus the way we used to approach them?”

“For one thing, I said, “I don’t believe we went deeply enough into the processes to get all the needed details out on the table before starting to draw conclusions that led to decisions. By that I mean . . . well, consider those in management today. How many of our bright, well-intentioned young managers have ever been given the firsthand opportunity to get a thorough understanding of what really happens in the progression of activities required to conduct our business? With rare exceptions, we have hired kids right of college and given them some initial indoctrination in the company philosophies, policies and practices. Then, we made sure they understood how they were to be paid and their entitlements to benefits. Finally, too often we turned them over to someone who had only a few more years in the business than those to whom they were responsible for providing on-the-job training!”

Dan was with me. “That’s true. In times of rapid growth, some of those expected to do the training had been with us no more than a year.” he said.

I continued, “So, as long as the needs of the business could be met by the processes they inherited, things went along fairly well. What we lost under such practices were the types of improvements one would expect from employees who better understood the functions they were performing. As a result, I’ve seen examples of where you could go back to an old job you had helped design years ago and find that it had not changed at all. It was not unusual to find the original set-up instructions with your handwritten notes of explanation were still passed from one operator to the next.”

“We certainly had our share of those situations in the way we processed orders, updated inventories, and the like,” Dan agreed. “Special needs of our customers — like including their item number alongside our product code on shipping documents and invoices — gave our people fits, often requiring major rewrites, not only to our procedures, but also to our computer software. Yes, I know what you mean.”

Now we were really getting into the heart of the problem and I said, “As you just illustrated, along comes some new requirement for change and we have to respond, or the customer will likely go elsewhere. But when the new breed of managers was faced with such challenges to the way they were accustomed to operating, it turned out most were simply not equipped with sufficient knowledge and experience to initiate the changes needed. In such circumstances, the technologists were more than happy to offer suggestions.”

Once again, Dan knew where the conversation should go. “Speed, accuracy, and flexibility have been the watchwords forever,” he said. “So the existing sequence of procedures would often remain the same, plus some additional fields added to our forms and accounting records, some more lines of programming code were patched in, and the problems would be solved! Technology to the rescue! And since the problems had been so effectively solved in the short run, not enough attention was likely given to either the initial cost of such modifications or the overall cost of added personnel time to work around the patches in the long run.

“So, in conclusion,” Dan said, “We would proclaim we had solved your insatiable appetites for change, and that you should be quite happy, regardless of the price you might have to pay.”

Dan shook his head and laughed bitterly. “Sorry ‘bout that,” he apologized. “I’m getting a little punchy with all this, I guess.”

“No problem. In some respects it’s so distressing we need to try and add some humor to keep from becoming too cynical.” I cleared my throat and picked up on the line of thought. “While those making them often had no real appreciation for just how such minor changes would affect our total systems, you guys in upper management of I/T were apparently oblivious to any of it. For our part, the rest of the executive committee may not have realized it, but we were fat, dumb and happy so long as our quarterly profit objectives were being met . . . and our bonuses kept coming.”

Nodding agreement, Dan added, “That’s about the way it was during the heavy expansions as Weixx-Corp went on its unrelenting growth spurt through mergers and acquisitions. At a minimum, we had to link each new organization into our financial reporting systems so that consolidated statements could be produced as soon after joining the fold as possible. As the scope of our operations expanded, our organization charts seemed to grow without limits. Then along came a new concept that promised to deliver us from such excesses. It was supposed to give us greater freedom to utilize the talents of a smaller number of individuals across departments and units within the overall organization. Thus, Matrix Management was born!”

“Yeah, I know only too well,” John said. “Theory at work again, and because it could show initial reductions in payroll, the CFOs looked like heroes to the emerging breed of bottom-line-at-any-cost CEOs. Swayed in turn, boards of directors went right along with the program in their zeal to dramatically increase stock prices by improving price/earnings ratios! Certainly, our top folks were not immune!”

“But if it’s okay with you, Dan, let’s save that topic for later. Now, though I started out thinking I’d focus on I/T because the new budget requests had triggered our getting together in the first place, it’s becoming clear to me how much more pervasive my investigations need to be. The basic elements overlap each other such that it’s necessary to consider the impacts of our matrix management philosophy on the overall organization structure. The way we go to market is definitely affected, so that sales and marketing need special attention. Product development is necessarily involved. Our financial measurement system comes into play. After all, hasn’t our industrial world progressively improved the processes and tools used to expand manufacturing output? Great emphasis is placed on streamlining the distribution of goods and information, controlling finance, educating and caring for people, and generally improving the operations of business and government organizations. From all these thoughts, it stands to reason our demands on I/T are multidimensional and evolving, and that to fully appreciate what we expect you guys to do requires us to continuously keep our business plans fully developed and up to date. I’ve learned that we must we seek to understand as much as possible about the capabilities and the limitations of information technologies.”

Dan responded quickly, “Yes to all those things. Keeping I/T systems in sync with the evolving needs of the business also requires that we understand how the various functions of the enterprise work. Then we can help translate your information needs into well-developed, easy to use processes that assist everyone in meeting the demands of their jobs.”

Seeking to direct us to a next step, I said, “So, since we both understand what’s basically needed, how about putting a fresh set of eyes on my challenges?” Not giving him time to voice an objection, I drove forward. “I know, you don’t want to get back into the company, and that’s understandable. But, it’s also obvious you haven’t lost your appetite for solving complex problems that involve hi-tech!”

Dan agreed to at least think some more about what we’d been discussing and drop by my office for coffee the following week.

Outsourcing, Supply Chain Management and Cutting Operating Costs

Thankfully, nothing had changed for Dan, and once on the sidewalk he continued with an even voice level, “On the subject of moving I/T outside, have you also heard examples of spectacular consequences from taking the wrong direction when it came to outsourcing?”

“Not really, I guess. What are you getting at?” I was puzzled by the question.

“Well, you’re familiar with the resounding success of Zelinski’s Full Line Discount Stores in recent years, while their major competitors have been suffering in most markets around the country?” he asked. Everybody knew the extraordinary success Abe Zelinski had enjoyed as he had built the largest national chain of retail stores in the country. They had locations in just about every urban community of any size, coast to coast, and were rapidly entering markets throughout Europe as well.

“Of course,” I said. “A great deal has been written in the Wall Street Journal, Business Week and other publications. My executive MBA classes used Zelinski’s as an example of a firm whose success was largely possible through innovative uses of computer and communications technologies. They constantly monitor sales activities throughout their network of stores from cash registers back to their warehouses, using up to the minute information to drive purchasing and distribution. I’m not sure how others you mentioned operate, except to say they all strive to offer the widest selection of goods at the lowest possible prices.”

Thankfully, nothing had changed for Dan, and once on the sidewalk he continued with an even voice level, “On the subject of moving I/T outside, have you also heard examples of spectacular consequences from taking the wrong direction when it came to outsourcing?”

“Not really, I guess. What are you getting at?” I was puzzled by the question.

“Well, you’re familiar with the resounding success of Zelinski’s Full Line Discount Stores in recent years, while their major competitors have been suffering in most markets around the country?” he asked. Everybody knew the extraordinary success Abe Zelinski had enjoyed as he had built the largest national chain of retail stores in the country. They had locations in just about every urban community of any size, coast to coast, and were rapidly entering markets throughout Europe as well.

“Of course,” I said. “A great deal has been written in the Wall Street Journal, Business Week and other publications. My executive MBA classes used Zelinski’s as an example of a firm whose success was largely possible through innovative uses of computer and communications technologies. They constantly monitor sales activities throughout their network of stores from cash registers back to their warehouses, using up to the minute information to drive purchasing and distribution. I’m not sure how others you mentioned operate, except to say they all strive to offer the widest selection of goods at the lowest possible prices.”

“Well, you’re right as far as you went. An important point about the Zelinski’s example that is relevant to you today was this: Zelinski’s understood they were in the business of selling commodities that could be bought at a wide variety of other stores, including grocery stores, drug stores, and a host of other competing outlets… ‘course, that was long before the explosion of retail connections made possible by the Internet! To differentiate themselves, they determined they needed to be recognized by the buying public as a source for the widest product assortments at low prices, as many hours per day as each market area justified. However, their competitors could also make about the same claims. Right?”

I nodded and he went on, “So, Zelinski’s decided they could best differentiate themselves by developing and continuously improving their overall distribution system. In addition to their total reliance on a very broad array of computer technologies and the advanced techniques employed in their warehousing facilities, what do you think is the critical part of a widespread system that would have to function as nearly perfectly as possible?”

Thinking through what had to be involved, I offered, “Well, since you’ve named the computer and the physical warehousing components, I guess you must be talking about how the merchandise actually gets to the stores.”

“Exactly! You are paying attention, John! And do you know what happened…what Paul Harvey would call the rest of the story?”

“Sorry to disappoint you, Dan, but that’s about all I know on that. Please go on.”

“Well, the Zelinksi example is probably the best model for what we call Supply Chain Management in today’s terminologies. It begins with tight controls over inventories throughout the pipeline of goods from purchasing through distribution centers and into the stores. Inherent in their processes is the never-ending emphasis on cutting costs at every step in the chain. And, it’s all what we call demand-driven by the real-time tracking of sales from the registers in every store. I heard one speaker characterize the Zelinksi chain as being so effective that when a consumer purchases a roll of toilet tissue from one of their stores, a signal goes out and someone cuts down a tree from a paper producer’s forest! ‘Course, that’s a strong exaggeration, but it makes the point quite well, don’t you think?”

“Neat way to put it,” John said. “Makes sense when you lay it out that way.”

Dan picked up the theme again, “Well, under pressure to regain some competitive ground, the management of some of Zelinski’s major competitors took deliberate actions. Looking over their operating statements they discovered very large sums were being spent each year on computers, on warehousing, and on transportation. They didn’t feel comfortable even considering tampering with their I/T infrastructure. Moreover, they had long-term investments in warehousing and stores that didn’t offer much opportunity for savings in the short run.

“That left transportation. Since most merchandise was moved by trucks which they owned or leased, and their commitments were relatively short in duration, that part of their operating budget came under close scrutiny by the bean counters. By the way, it’s critical to this discussion to note that the finance people took the initiative at Corrigan’s and other discount retail companies and drove their decisions, while the Zelinski’s marketing executives drove their strategic decisions. As a result, Corrigan’s, et al, focused on the premise: We’re not in the trucking business, and look how much money we could save by taking a different approach. The finance people convinced upper management to sell off the trucks and to contract their shipments to third party trucking firms. Though that decision probably did look good on paper, those in management didn’t realize they were also giving up control of a critical piece of their competitive strategy to others. Namely, distribution logistics.”

Dan plowed ahead, “Now, as we agreed earlier, the folks at Zelinski’s understood that product selection and availability on their shelves was key to customer satisfaction. It should also go without saying that taking advantage of their tremendous purchasing power with manufacturers to keep per item costs at bare minimums was an obvious cornerstone to their strategies.”

“Yes,” I agreed, without hesitation.

“They were determined to make logistics a cornerstone of their go-to-market plans. That meant they knew they needed to have the tightest possible control over restocking orders and deliveries. That meant they had to continuously monitor sales statistics for each item at each store, and to gear their purchasing accordingly. Finally, it meant Zelinski’s needed to control those most critical parts of their overall business.”

I nodded agreement once again, and Dan continued.

“So Zelinski’s required suppliers to connect their computers directly to the systems at Zelinski’s, enabling purchasing to happen electronically. In this way they could monitor and maintain sufficient inventories and production schedules to ensure rapid deliveries to either distribution centers or directly to the stores. And the point I was getting to is this: while Corrigan’s was handing their trucking over to others, Zelinski’s was strengthening their trucking operations as an integral part of their total strategy. So, while Zelinski’s experienced steadily increasing sales, expanding lines of merchandise and opening of new stores, their competitors suffered declining sales and the closing of large numbers of stores.”

“I hadn’t thought about that . . . and certainly I didn’t know anything about the example you just gave,” I said. “So Zelinski’s looked to their own situation to guide their decisions and didn’t follow the highly touted route of cut-costs-by-any-means-possible we were all reading about in the business journals. But how did they resist that temptation and go their own way?”

“The same way common sense dictates any firm should operate! A strong CEO has the power and the responsibility for setting and maintaining the direction of the company. Abe Zelinski knew that. He made it clear he expected every part of his company to follow the basic philosophies that had taken him from a small operation that no one knew outside his state, to recognition today as the leading discount retailer of general merchandise in the country and the generator of more revenues today than any other retail company in the world!”

“So, I guess that having been inside Weixx-Corp through those early golden years, knowing how we operated then that made us so successful, and comparing it with the company we are today, you can’t be too happy.”

I had hit another nerve, causing Dan to purse his lips, tighten his jaws, and bring tension to his whole body. His face took on an expression of resignation: no, he wasn’t happy, but he had apparently gotten over most of his mad and was now trying to be philosophical about it all.

“Sad and disappointed,” was all he said finally. “But you know… ” he said drawing out kno-o-w for added emphasis, “it doesn’t have to continue to be this way.”

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