Archive for March, 2007

Another Reading from the “Double Secret” Handbook for bad Executives

March 26, 2007

I received such an overwhelming response from the last publication of excerpts from this handbook that I delved back in to find another.

In my book, “160 Degrees of Deviation: The Case for the Corporate Cynic,” I wrote about a fellow named Al Reynolds. Al held a black belt in the procedure outlined in the following chapter. This is so outrageous and perverse that the chairman of the “Supreme Council” of the bad executives society himself could have only written it.

Chapter 3 Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right, Unless You Know How

Do you ever need to get away with something, get a leg up on a peer, or enhance your own power or prestige? Just remember the old adage that you were taught as a child by your parents, teachers, or clergyman: “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” A simple example went like this:

Mom put out a plate of cookies for Johnny and his brother Billy. Johnny got there first and ate all of the cookies. Billy complained. Mom told Johnny that he was wrong. Johnny made up a story that he didn’t know that the cookies were for sharing. He may have felt bad for a moment because he’d been caught but then savored the fact that he had gotten all the cookies. The next day, Mom put out another plate of cookies. This time Billy announced that he would eat all the cookies because Johnny had eaten them all the day before. Johnny complained. Mom intervened and told Billy that it would be wrong for him to eat all of the cookies. Mom explained that two wrongs didn’t make a right. Johnny and Billy shared the plate of cookies. Billy remembered this valuable lesson. Johnny remembered getting more than his fair share of cookies.

The vast majority of managers and employees in your company are decent and honest folks. They’ve all learned Billy’s valuable lesson. If they have children, they’ve probably even had occasion to teach it themselves. It’s your job to remember Johnny’s valuable lesson. If you work this lesson just right, you will be able to exploit it every time.

Keep in mind that the wise “Mom” has now been replaced by your boss or to whomever you report. Your peers and co-workers are Billys. Turn defeats into victories and unintended consequences into rewards. Timing is everything here. Just like Johnny, you need to be the first to break new ground, push the limits or bend the rules.

Here are some examples from our test companies that will illustrate the concept:

Betty managed a department that gathered data from field locations, processed and summarized it and then reported the results up the corporate chain. During the goal-setting phase of her annual performance review, Betty was challenged to provide the summary results on a faster timetable. The reward would be a big raise the following year. Instead of the reviewing the internal procedures of her own group with an eye to improving productivity, Betty sent new schedules to the field demanding faster reporting cycles. She had even invoked the word “corporate” several times in her memo’s making it seem as though all of this was coming down from on high. This newly compressed timetable created huge problems for the field operations. Their staffs were working a tremendous amount of overtime and running into scheduling difficulties to meet the new deadlines. Betty had made sure that her own group’s processing time was unaffected. It was all on the backs of the field operations. By Betty’s next performance review, the plan had worked so well that she received a huge increase and her achievement was written up in the company newsletter. Department heads from the field were furious and bombarded corporate headquarters with protests. Corporate officials listened to the complaints but asked why no one from the field had questioned Betty about the new requirement. If the problems were indeed so serious, why hadn’t the departments complained earlier? In the end, it was decided that Betty had perhaps overstepped her authority a little. That was wrong. The field operations departments hadn’t questioned or complained about it soon enough. That was wrong too. Two wrongs did not make a right. Betty bought a huge new home with her raise.

Sam was the Real Estate Director. Three years ago, he was assigned to purchase some property for a new distribution center for the firm. Sam was in a real hurry to close the deal. He wasn’t as interested in the terms or conditions as he was in the hoopla that would be created by a quick close. He had even bypassed some internal control channels to grease the deal through faster and taken it directly to the president. Sam’s plan worked and he was publicly lauded by his boss and received a promotion. After analyzing the details of the purchase, the CFO publicly criticized Sam for making a bad deal. The terms of the sale included the purchase of an adjacent parcel of unusable land. As a result, the company had overpaid and was stuck with an empty parcel. Sam explained it away as just another one of those unfortunate “exogenous variables” that always crept into a transaction. How was he to know? The president and the rest of the senior staff felt that the CFO’s public chiding of Sam was too severe. Besides, the CFO should have known in advance about the deal anyway and it was the CFO’s fault that he missed the opportunity to review the contract before it closed. Sam was wrong and the CFO was wrong. Since two wrongs didn’t make a right, Sam was exonerated. He enjoyed his new title and salary.

A year later, a real estate developer came into the area and property values soared. The empty parcel was now worth fifty times what the company had paid for it. The developer contacted the company and offered a generous bid for the unused parcel. Sam seized upon this offer and ensured that the huge return on the investment was communicated directly to the president. Rumors quickly spread that Sam was to receive a huge cash bonus for his masterful skill as a real estate speculator. Of, course he did nothing to dissuade the accolades. Those who remembered the original deal and Sam’s explanation of how the additional parcel had come to be purchased were irate. It was wrong for Sam to receive an award for something he had virtually nothing to do with. These protests were countered by the president as being equally wrong. Sam had been exonerated and his deal turned out to be great for the company. Sam bought a BMW and vacationed in Spain.

These are just a few examples for you to draw from. Always remember that what may seem wrong to your co-workers and others can be equally right for you. Even if Mom thinks you’re wrong, an equally wrong response by your co-workers will be adjudged as negating yours. If you get away with this enough, others will begin to expect it from you. You’ll gain a reputation as someone to be reckoned with. Play it right and you can’t go wrong.

Be Johnny on the spot and enjoy the cookies!

Some Fun Reading from the “Double Secret” Handbook for bad Executives

March 22, 2007

In my Oliver Stone-ish mind, I have always imagined that there is a secret society for bad corporate executives. Fellow co-workers and I have talked about this for years. It’s not at all illogical to think that there’s conspiracy afoot. There must be some central committee that promulgates the rules and procedures for these goofs because no one could ever dream up some of this stuff on their own. Real leaders don’t need to join this society and don’t. In fact, the selection committee dismisses them out of hand anyway.

It’s still fun to think about it though. You know the clandestine anointing ceremony where they learn the secret handshake and so on. I imagine that’s where they are also handed the “Double Secret Handbook.” This manual contains everything the new executive needs to wreak havoc on the rest of the organization and score kudos for themselves and their cronies.

I might have even found a chapter or two from that tome. These are right from the central committee and will give the reader a real flavor for their thinking process. Here’s one of my favorites. I will share more from time to time:

Chapter 10 Salary Norming

You can always be a star with your peers, the CEO, board of directors or anyone else you happen to report to if you propose cost cutting ideas. The perfect place to start is always with middle management and salaried types. Middle management is a necessary but costly evil. We tried getting rid of that entire layer of the organization chart a few times during the past twenty years but it created problems for us. The original theory was to convince the bottom tier of the workforce that they were responsible for the success of the company. We thought that they’d “buy in” to that concept and just run things the way we wanted them to. We’re not exactly sure what went wrong. This was a great strategy to save on salaries and benefits. Maybe the workers just couldn’t grasp the brilliance of the concept. Anyway, they started asking us to solve all their petty day-to-day problems and get involved with interdepartmental issues and the like. Things were grinding to a standstill. We couldn’t waste our valuable time on that. The workers claimed that they did not have the authority to fix any of this on their own and they dumped it all back on us. Authority? That’s our domain. We couldn’t just hand out authority like work gloves or office supplies. We wanted to hold them responsible, not give them any of our authority.

So it was back to the drawing board with this middle management stuff. We needed a method to get the workers’ problems off our backs but still save on cost. We devised a brilliantly sinister plan called “Salary Norming.” Here’s how it works. We’ve learned that we need few well-placed midlevel management types to run interference for us with the workers. Besides, who wants to do all the legwork associated with rolling out the new strategies and other programs we dream up? With fewer people to cajole, we can more easily convince these middle managers to “buy in” to the idea that they are responsible for the success of the company. We can give them some limited authority but must make sure that real power remains with us.

The first step in reducing these costs is to view them differently. Start by developing a “standard” rate per hour for middle managers. Everyone is used to looking at our direct labor force on a cost per hour basis. The concept of a rate per hour always has a lot of appeal with the finance people. They’ll support this. The operations folks are always fixated on controlling rates per hour. They’ll support it as well. The Human Resources Department? They don’t count. Just ignore them. So how do you set a standard rate? We looked at the technical staff people around our test company. They’re salaried and exempt from overtime. What would we do without IT types, accountants, engineers, etc? We’ve never looked at that group on a cost per hour basis but it was time to start. We secretly calculated the average cost per hour for that group to be $20/hr. for approx. 2,000 working hours a year. (Whew, that’s $40,000 a year. We didn’t know that we paying them that much!) Now that we had our standard, we moved on to the middle managers. That group ranged from $60,000 to $90,000 dollars per year with a rate of $30 to $45 per hour for the same 2000 hours. Ridiculous! No middle manager is worth more than a programmer or an accountant. We’re not paying these people for their experience in managing people and solving day to day problems, we’re paying them to work.

Next, begin to reduce the gap between the hourly rates of the two groups by making the middle managers work more hours. Expect, no demand, a $60,000 per year manager to work 3,000 hours, a $70,000 per year manager 3,500 hours and so forth. Why a $90,000 per manager will have to work 4,500 hours to make the $20/hr. standard! There are lots of things that you can pile on these managers to keep them busy. Delegate, delegate, delegate! Keep pushing things down. Resist any attempt to add more middle management. Ensure that the ones you have earn every cent. Constantly remind them that they have “bought in” to the fact that they are responsible for the success of the company.

Now for the best part! Once these managers start putting in horrific hours, they’ll look to their salaried direct reports for help and make them work more hours as well. Hell, you might even get the total cost per hour for the entire salaried workforce down to $15 per hour!

Think about the charts and graphs that will reveal your brilliance!

The True Leaders that I have Known

March 19, 2007

Although this blog is relatively new, I have already been criticized for dwelling too much on the dark side of corporate leadership and painting all executives with the same brush.  That has never been my intention.  The thrust of my “rants” has always been aimed at those who destroy morale and create cynicism and malaise. 

 

In response, I would like to offer this list of the characteristics of the real leaders that I have known and admired throughout my career.  I have always done my best to emulate these qualities in my role as a manager, a role that I have held for 31 years.

 

Steven M., The former Controller and CFO of a $700M per year nationally known corporation.  I worked both directly and indirectly for Steve for 10 years.  He was the first real “big time” executive that I ever met.  Steve is the model by which I judge all managers and executives:

·        Unpretentious.  There were no airs about him.

·        Even tempered.  Never flew off the handle.

·        Thoughtful.  He never made a rash decision.  He would always think things through.

·        Supportive. If one needed help, he was always available.

·        Well spoken.  Never used a profanity, only measured clear and concise words.  Always made sure that what he said was understood.

·        Responsible.  The first one to admit when he made a mistake. 

Steve had the respect of the entire staff as well as that of a multitude of others in the organization.  Even the malcontents respected him.  He beamed with a low-key aura of self-confidence. He knew who he was and what role he filled in the company. He very seldom ever threw the weight of position around and never with the staff. If you did a good job, he’d make sure and tell you.  If you screwed up or got out of line, you’d hear about that too.  His praise or criticism were always aimed what you had done and never about you personally.  He could mix it up with the staff at the Christmas party but always remained slightly aloof.  If Steve had any personal idiosyncrasies or peculiar habits, they were never evident. He was much more respected than liked but he was a likable guy. He looked, acted, and sounded like an executive.  Steve was not a stodgy old man either, only about ten years older than I was.  I was in my mid twenties when we met.

 

Under Steve’s leadership, a great deal of issues confronting the organization were solved.  There was no fanfare or accolades.  We knew that we were just getting done what needed to get done.  If Steve asked you to put out more effort to get a project completed, you just knew that it was important to the corporation.  He didn’t have to tell you that.  He’d never send you off on a wild goose chase or waste your time.

 

A new president was appointed to the company back in the 80’s who had different kind of style – if you get my drift.  Steve was moved around to a variety of other positions and then retired early.  A great loss.

 

Warren L. The former VP of Human Resources for the same firm.

·        Unpretentious.  Like Steve, there were no airs about him. 

·        Even tempered.

·        Trustworthy.  Would never betray a confidence unless he obtained one’s permission.

·        Well spoken.  Never used a profanity, only clear and concise words.

·        Respectful. Treated everyone with dignity.  

Warren possessed all of the traits and characteristics that you would expect in a Vice of Human Resources.  He could spot a problem employee or manager a mile away.  Always acted with ultimate discretion.  The Human Resources Department was just that.  It was very responsive to the needs of both employees and management.

 

Warren fell to the same fate as Steve.  The new president replaced him with an attorney.

 

Phil B.  CFO of a $100M manufacturer where I worked as Corporate Controller

·        Even tempered.

·        Thoughtful.  He never made a rash decision either.  He would always think things through.

·        Well spoken.  Never used a profanity in public, only clear and concise words.

·        Respectful. Treated everyone with dignity.

·        Hard Worker.  Very hands on.  Would never dream of asking anyone to do anything that he wouldn’t do himself.  If pressed, I believe that he actually could have done everything himself.

Phil had a pretty tough time keeping the president of the company in line.  The CEO was a pretty arrogant so and so.  I suspect a little of that had rubbed off on Phil or that he had to take on some of that in order to deal the big cheese.  On balance, rock solid and one of the most intelligent people I have ever met.  He knew when the handwriting was on the door and left to become the CFO of a prestigious organization.   

 

The old place is in a serious state of decline.

 

Charlie F.  Crew Chief under whom I served as a volunteer fire fighter and EMT

·         Courageous

·         Dependable

·         Respectful

·         Self-effacing

By trade, Charlie was a blue-collar worker. He was not very well educated.  Charlie was a Vietnam veteran whom I had suspected suffered from PTSD.  Charlie was not good at paperwork and did not like administrative tasks.  He was very aware of his limitations. 

In a fire or some other bad situation, you stuck with Charlie.  You just knew that he was not going to let anything bad happen to you.

 

No one that I ever spoken with about these individuals has ever mentioned respecting or admiring these people for being workaholics, closing “big deals,” saving millions of dollars, or having TV shows.  These leaders never blew their own horns and dissuaded others from doing so on their behalf.  There was a humility and a dignity that they brought with them to work every day. It was self-evident.

Ed’s “No Excuses” Program: Had it really worked for thirty years or thirty years ago?

March 16, 2007

Please refer back to my previous post about the clown who had been elected chairman of board of one of my previous employers. Remembering those events really got my cynical dander up!

You’d have thought it was the second coming of Christ. The “chairman” (I’ll call him Ed) was going to save our company from ruination. This time, though, our salvation would not come from a simple “programme du jour” but from a “culture change.” UH OH!

All managers and line supervisors received a memo from the president. All “white collar” employees were expected to attend meetings over the next week with both he and Ed. The purpose was to become indoctrinated and trained in the concept of “cost reduction.” The concept was touted as a new way of thinking – a new way of life – a new culture. Attendance was mandatory and NO excuses would be tolerated! Attached to the memo was a form that had various columns including date, project number, description, annual savings, etc. You probably know the drill.

The first order of business was determining exactly who was a “white collar” employee. We were not formally structured like a large corporation. There were some staff people and clerical types who straddled both the plant and the office. We were very “lean” due to constant “rightsizing.” Since I had no idea who Ed might consider to be “white collar,” I made the mistake of asking my boss (who had actually written the memo at the behest of the president and as dictated by Ed) about the intended attendees. “Ed wants all white collar employees to attend,” he shrugged. I sensed that he was really irritated about the whole thing. My boss had this way of becoming slightly sarcastic when he was upset with something going on “upstairs.” He soon recovered and put on his “I am a true believer in the cost reduction culture” face. He was a senior executive and I knew that no matter how goofy this was going to be, he would embrace and support it. We made up the list. Had we only included management, the group would have been too small. We decided to include the clerical and even semi-clerical types in order to fill up the room.

I will abridge the minutes of the meeting for the sake of brevity. It only lasted an hour. I may be exaggerating a little, but by and large, this is how it went. Just close yours eyes and imagine:

Speech from president with slide show:

“Everyone meet Ed. Ed was president of blah, blah, blah, etc. Ed has extensive experience with cost reduction programs. He has been saving companies millions over the past thirty years. We need to save $10 million this year. Since its April, we’ll cut it back to $7 million for this year but it will be $10 million again for next year. You already have the forms. You will each get a goal. There will be NO excuses. I want your forms back with your projects and your savings by next week. Anyone who does not come up with enough projects to meet their savings goals will have the shortfalls added to next year’s goals. Anyone who gets behind in coming up with projects and implementing them will have private meetings with Ed and me. You don’t want that! There will be NO excuses. Questions?”

Silence.

Speech from Ed:

Hi, I’m Ed. Your president and I were at the board meeting last month and we were challenged to come with a way to get this company more profitable. We were each given a piece of paper and asked to write down how much savings were needed in order to make this company profitable again. We both left the room and went off into two different areas. When we came back, we compared notes. Would you believe it? We had each written down exactly the same amount, $10 million! Now I’ll bet you’re all wondering how we’re going to do it. Don’t worry! I’ve been doing this for thirty years. Cost reductions! That’s the ticket! It’s a culture, a way of thinking. It’s really simple and I will help you do it. I’ve implemented this at every company that I’ve worked with and it works! You are the people that will make it happen. You are management. You will control your own destiny. Make no mistake about one thing, there will be NO excuses. I will guide you every step of the way. The best part of the program is the personal recognition you’ll get when you exceed your savings goals. Oh yeah, I forgot. You’d better come with projects that total at least double your savings goals. That way, if some of them aren’t approved, you’ll have others to fall back on. Remember, there will be NO excuses.

Now to make things easy for you, I am going to give each of you my personal list of 1001 cost reduction ideas that I’ve gathered over the past thirty years. These ideas work! See how easy it will be? And if that’s not enough, I even have another list of 300 more. Believe me, the people loved this. Once they got going, there was no stopping them. But remember, there will be NO excuses! And you do not want to be called into one of those meetings with the president and me. Questions?”

Silence.

 Closing remarks by the president

“Uh, Bob (glancing over to the VP of finance), when will those cost reduction goals be sent out? I want everyone’s forms back by next week. We’ve got to get going. Remember, NO excuses!”

The sounds of moving chairs as the employees departed and the witty banter and back slapping between Ed, the president and members of the senior staff.

The stunned looks on the faces of the employees as they left the meeting were amazing. What a pathetic way to hold a meeting let alone usher in a culture change! Worse yet, we had invited many of the wrong employees. It was obvious from Ed’s speech that he thought that he was lecturing the management. Why hadn’t anyone asked him what he meant by “white collar?” I sensed that we were doomed.

The cost reduction goals came out a few days later. I asked my boss about when the training would begin. “You’ve got the forms,” he replied. That reply set the tone for the rest of our conversation:

“Well how does the process work?”

“You heard Ed.”

“How about some examples of how projects are developed and implemented?”

“Didn’t you get the list of Ed’s 1001 cost reduction ideas?”

“No.”

“Oh, I guess we forgot to hand them out. I’ll get you copies.”

“That’s not what I mean. It would be nice to see some examples of projects from start to finish. It might help the managers with the methodology.”

“Ed said that his old secretary used to keep volumes of project write ups.”

“Can we see some?”

“I don’t know.”

I gave my old boss a lot of credit for saying all of this with a straight face. We never got the examples I had asked for but I did get the list of the 1001 cost reduction ideas as well as the bonus list of the additional 300. Some list! The 1001 and 300 ideas were nothing more a compilation of statements, comments, fragmented sentences and even questions. It looked as though someone had simply emptied a suggestion box over many years and just typed up the contents. My recollection of the breakdown of the 1301 ideas:

50% – Items that we had already attacked, attacked and attacked to the point where our infrastructure was crumbling.

20% – Items having nothing to do with any of the processes or costs associated with our type of operation or even company structure. Ed’s old companies were in different kinds of businesses and had processes that we did not perform. There were no common threads either practically or conceptually. You can’t cancel a guard service that you do not have. These were dead ends.

20% – Items having to do with processes, technology and systems that  had been outdated or obsolete for at least twenty years. Mandate the use of Watts lines? Gimme a break! More dead ends.

5% – Items that were actually just posed as questions: “Are you a member of a paint reclamation team?” Huh? More dead ends.

4% – Items that actually contradicted each other: “It’s cheaper to send things out rather than do them inside.” vs. “It’s cheaper to do things inside rather than send things out.” More dead ends.

1% – Maybe a few real “ideas” that we might have overlooked over the years. On balance, though, these items wouldn’t amount to peanuts.

This review reinforced my view that both Ed and his program of NO excuses culture change might have worked once years ago. Perhaps with the right company at some precise moment in time when the stars and planets had aligned just right. Even if that had indeed happened, that time had long passed. Talk about resting on one’s former laurels! This was pathetic.

Well, we finally got something going. As middle managers, we were stuck with rolling this out and we did. Of course, it was much more fluff and form than substance. There is such a thing called “the law of diminishing returns”. Our cost reduction efforts prior to Ed’s arrival had already squeezed the life out of the place. Over the next two years, the program and NO excuses culture began a slow but agonizing death spiral. Almost the entire senior staff, other than Ed, the president and Roy (remember him from a previous post?) bailed. I did too.

I make NO excuses for leaving. I just pity the poor employees who couldn’t.

He “Gave one for the Team.” – An Appropriate Remark for a Real Jackass!

March 14, 2007

In my book, “160 Degrees of Deviation: The Case for the Corporate Cynic,” I wrote about a bunch of characters (and I do mean characters) that I have encountered during my working career. Somehow, I missed this jerk but was nudged into writing this piece after reminiscing with a former coworker from a previous employer.

It’s always amazing when a bunch of middle managers and staff employees get cut but a new Vice President suddenly arrives on the scene. That was the case with Roy.

The board of directors had just elected a new chairman from outside of our company. This clown sat on the boards of several corporations and had just been canned (Oh so sorry, Golden Parachuted) from another company where he had been the president and CEO. Talk about a “good ole boys” network! To soothe the blow to his giant ego, our new chairman decided that he would become directly involved with the day to day operations of our company. What better way to do this than to bring in one of his minions who had also been canned from the same firm.

Roy’s entrance into our fold was rather innocuous. He just appeared one day. There was no announcement. Initially, Roy had no title other than “Vice President.” Of course, he needed that title to support the six figure salary he was drawing. I had heard through the grapevine that he was a “Jack of all Trades” and therefore, they’d find something important for him to do. At the time, we needed a great deal of help getting our new purchasing/materials system up and running. We were quite shorthanded due to downsizing. When I heard that Roy had extensive experience in that field, I suggested to my boss that Roy might be perfect to undertake the implementation. My boss was very hesitant to even discuss this suggestion. The implementation needed a lot of “hands on” work and, according to my boss; Roy was more of a “big picture” guy. Uh-huh!

Roy had a great gig going. He lived a few hundred miles away in the city where his old company was located. He had no intention of relocating. Top management had decided that Roy could commute to our office on Mondays, stay in a local hotel and then commute back home on Fridays. Of course, we picked up the hotel tab and reimbursed him for his mileage. Every third or fourth week, he could just work from home. Wow! The only thing that Roy had to pay for was his meals (Note: The hotel had a free breakfast and Roy managed to glom onto every freebie meal he could finagle out of the staff) He was set up in an office and, I suppose, began his “big picturizing.”

Having a leech like that on board, during a business downturn was quite demoralizing but Roy was pretty harmless at first. We’d walk past his office and hear the sports radio channel he listened to incessantly, watched him send E-mails and talk on the phone to his friends, etc.  Oh, he participated in meetings and such and even got involved in a few purchasing issues but we were always wary of him because of his “connections.” If he had just kept a low profile, we could have tolerated him. But no, he had to go and do it.

It was bad enough that on certain Friday mornings he would strut around the office telling everyone that, “If anyone is looking for me next week, I’ll be working from home.” He always make a point of making sure that he was overheard by as many people as possible. Since most of the employees didn’t even know who he was, no one really cared. The corker came one day when one of the other managers came into my office and related that he had just come from customer service where Roy was lecturing one of the young CS specialists about how HE had negotiated his sweetheart deal with the company. The manager had stopped to listen to the sermon and now knew all of the details. By the end of the day, it was all over the company. Roy had even told the employee that HE had no intentions of working long hours or taking on any tedious projects. According to the manager, to listen to Roy, you’d think that he owned the place. Why would anyone be so arrogant? What could this young employee have thought? What a jerk!

A few weeks later, the company president sent Roy on an errand out of town. This created a problem for Roy because he could not return home until very late on Friday night. On Monday afternoon, when he finally showed up for work, he made his usual rounds. This time complaining aloud about the trip and his late Friday night but also crowing about how he had, “Given one for the team.”

An appropriate remark from a real jackass!

Gemba Schmemba! How Goofy can you get?

March 13, 2007

Gemba? I was surfing the business blogs for inspiration about my post on management fads and came across an article about “Gemba”. Where had I heard this before? I searched the memory bank and was harkened back to an experience with a former employer. I remembered being in one of our normal weekly 8 hour marathon forecast meetings with the plant manager. These were mind numbing events mandated by top management. They were oftentimes interrupted by phone calls from the top and pages from the shop floor, The plant manager was usually pretty stressed out during these meetings. He had a plant to run and we were a very “hands on” and “lean” (meaning most middle management had been cut) company.It was four or five O’clock and we were just about finishing up when the “consultant” that the board of directors had hired to help the president run the company (more on that in another post) stuck his head into my office. “I was out on the floor looking for you,” he announced as he grimaced at the plant manager. The plant manager shot back that he had been tied up all day in the forecast meeting. He also complained that all of the complex forecasting and reporting was keeping him from monitoring the operation. “Oh, I have a solution for that,” smiled the consultant, “When I come back next week, I’ll introduce you to Gemba!” The consultant left. The plant manager and I just stared at each other. We just knew that we in for another programme du jour. Thankfully, we never heard about it again.

Back to the article. So in skimming through the dissertation, I learned that Gemba is some gimmick devised to “program” managers into spending an alloted amount of time directly supervising their operations, but of course and as suspected, cataloguing what they see happening according to some proscribed report format. Another report! Just what they need – but this time it’s “Gemba” – so it must be good. The author of the piece seemed very excited about Gemba. He wrote about how today’s managers spend endless hours in meetings, participate in marathon conference calls and have lttle time to spend actually managing. The solution? Gemba! Here’s how managers could be more productive in less time – and fill out even more reports that could be scrutinized (and second guessed) by their superiors. Now anyone can be programmed to be a manager if they have a wristwatch and can fill out a form. Hmmm.

Back in the day, when I was a line operations manager, we practiced something called “management by walking around.” Does anyone remember that? That’s back when managers were supposed to be close to their operations and direct reports. That’s back when managers were told to get out of their offices and get out on the job. We had a few simple easy to understand metrics and we sallied forth. That’s back when management was more art than science. It’s a different thing today. All of the real time metrics, dashboards, decks, KPI’s, etc. that are needed to fulfill a decentralized and often remote top management’s insatiable desire to constantly armchair quarterback operations – and assign blame for bad news, require a tremendous amount of a manager’s time. Many “managers” have now been reduced to mere bureaucrats. How about attacking the real reasons behind the problem?

As I read further, it seemed that the author of the piece was beginning to realize that himself. As his enthusiasm began to wane, I took some solace in the fact he might not be totally brainwashed. I never found out what Gemba means. Is it an acronym? Consultants love acronyms. Is it a classical Greek word? Consultants with PhDs love to use Greek. Personally, I really don’t care.

The ending line of the article really blew me away. The last sentence read, “I know that this sounds silly but it really works.” My comment on his post was equally insightful, “It not only sounds silly. It IS silly!”

Kneeling at the Altar of the Latest Management Fad

March 11, 2007

When will they learn that all management fads have a limited life? There are no “silver bullets” and no substitutes for good smart work. Worse yet is when some consultant tries to evangelize the workforce into believing in some “new religion” replete with its own rituals, icons, and Bibles. It’s all intended to convince the masses that their attitudes about pay cuts, grueling schedules and idiot managers are wrongminded. God forbid (the real one) that anyone ever gets on the wrong side of one of these “prophets” by having an original thought or daring to question the doctrine. Remember the Spanish inquisition? What an insult to the intelligence of employees and good managers.

Successful organizations innovate. They are honest with their workforce and respect divergent opinions. They do not need to use goofy gimmicks and play games with employees’ psyches.

In fact, there is really only one thing that all successful organizations have in common – they are successful.

Modern Corporate Leadership

March 10, 2007

I was recently asked by Dave Butcher at “Industrial Management Times” to write an opinion piece on Leadership.  So in in the words of Otis Day (lead singer of Otis Day and the Knights), “Here ’tis….” 

Modern Corporate Leadership: A Dinosaur’s View

By Guest Contributor

Jerome Alexander, author of the book 160 Degrees of Deviation: The Case for the Corporate Cynic, tells IMT readers that accepting responsibility speaks volumes about character — an individual’s and an organization’s. Yet today responsibility and character no longer seem important, he writes.

Thirty years ago, when I was first promoted into management, an executive gave me some advice that I really took to heart. I was so impressed by his speech that I have shared it with every first-time manager that I have had the privilege of promoting or hiring. His advice went something like this:

When you are first promoted into management, three things will happen: you will get some money, some power and some responsibility. You will enjoy the money, but your lifestyle will change and the novelty will soon wear off. You will enjoy the feeling of power until you notice that you are constrained by rules and that there a lot of people with a lot more power and authority than you. You will get some responsibility, but guess what? That will never go away! In fact, if you’re good, the responsibilities will only increase

Being responsible for the activities of others should be a humbling experience. I believe that the ability to accept responsibility speaks volumes about an individual’s character. The same is true of corporate character: it is the reflection of the character of its leaders and managers.

Many of today’s corporate officials believe that they are at the helms of world-class organizations, each of which would qualify as the best place to work in America — and they’ve spent enough money on consultants to prove it!

There is never a problem accepting responsibility for good press. But when survey results on employee morale speak otherwise, some of these same officials appear dumbfounded. Others simply devalue the statistics as representing the views of the usual suspects — a few disgruntled employees and those who do not understand “the big picture” of a competitive global economy. Still others will scramble to delve into the survey results to nullify the sampling techniques or discredit the authors. Sad to say, but this cycle will repeat itself through new surveys every few years because of the one item most frequently overlooked during the postmortem process: the character of the corporate leadership itself.

In my 30 years in middle management, I have seen this time and time again. During the last several years, however, I have noticed a disturbing change for the worse. In this age of “lean” processes, downsizings, mergers and decentralized management, I believe that the once-good character of many corporations as reflected in their executives and managers has been replaced with a new character of irresponsible, self-serving and egocentric technocracy. The once-revered characteristics of solid corporate leadership have been replaced with a Hollywood-esque image of celebrity replete with pompous arrogance. Many responsible managers have been replaced with rude, fast-talking, “buzzword-spouting,” acronym-using facilitators of the latest trendy programs. They are leaders in name and title only. Character seems no longer important. Responsibility has been pushed far down the organization chart to the lowest levels. Isn’t that the latest fad?

The rank-and-file employees, on the other hand, still come to work with implicit trust that their managers are acting in the best interest of the company and its employees. They believe that those in positions of leadership should be responsible and of good character. Further, they believe that the corporation should be of good character. Their trust and loyalty cannot be taken for granted. They are beginning to feel betrayed.

Employees’ perceptions about the corporation’s leadership only seem to be important if they have an effect on “results” or become embarrassing (as in the case of an attitude survey). Instead of seriously considering the root causes of these negative perceptions, some consultants’ gimmicks will usually be employed to make the workforce “feel better” about their lot. Is that a responsible way of dealing with issues?

Worse yet is when some new form of “corporate religion” is forced upon employees to prove how wrong minded those perceptions are. Insulting the intelligence of the rank-and-file and good solid managers is no way to influence change.

Many employees are losing respect for their superiors as well as the corporate system that created them. Many corporate leaders have become so removed from day-to-day operations that they no longer have a clue as to what is really happening within their organizations, and therefore, other than for short-term profits, they no longer feel responsible for anything else. Many line managers have taken their cues from the top and perpetuated all of the bad characteristics that they believe will serve their own agendas and careers.

I recently spoke with the vice president of operations for a $100 million multi-plant manufacturer. When I asked about his responsibilities, he shot back that he was responsible for holding his subordinates responsible. What does that say of his character?

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Jerome Alexander MBA, CPA, is the author of the book 160 Degrees of Deviation: The Case for the Corporate Cynic (Llumina Press, 2002).

Why I Became the Corporate Cynic

March 3, 2007

Someone once said that the road to hell was paved with good intentions. So it is in corporate America. The plans, programs and policies employed by even the most honest and forthright companies to promote a healthy organizational climate very often fail to produce the intended results. Despite the best of intentions, the plans are soon abandoned and forgotten. The programs fail and the policies appear to be worth no more than the paper they were written on. The organization becomes infected with cynicism and frustration. Morale suffers. There may even be a myriad of casualties (usually some innocent employees) strewn along the way. Everyone begins to look for answers. New plans are developed. New programs and policies are rolled out and the process repeats itself again and again.

An in-depth investigation into these failures, however, would reveal that the original plans were sound. The programs and polices were intelligently crafted and well intended. What else could account for this phenomenon? Sad to say, but history will continue to repeat itself because of the one item most frequently overlooked during the postmortem: management.

Management is that group of individuals charged with the execution of these plans, programs and policies. I will include all levels from vice president down to foremen in my definition of this group. Since these managers run the company, it is here where the attention should be focused. In my opinion, the telltale sign that an organization has serious management problems occurs when and employee, usually at the water cooler or over a cup of coffee, is overhead to say, “Had I been in charge, I would have done things 180 degrees differently.”

During my now thirty years in midlevel management at small, medium and large companies, I’ve often felt that way myself. Whenever I think that I’ve seen it all, I’m surprised again. But in spite of the fact that I am the consummate corporate cynic, I have always given the company at least “20 degrees” for having good intentions. So while I myself might have not have done things 180 degrees differently, I certainly would have by 160.

About five years ago and probably out of pure frustration with the “system”, I wrote a book about those 160 degrees of deviation that needed correcting. After recalling all of my observations and personal experiences, I decided to offer my opinions on how those deviations could be identified and fixed. A review of my finished work revealed a distinctly cynical view of the corporate world. I guess that was to be expected. And so be it! I titled by book, “160 Degrees of Deviation: The Case for Corporate Cynic.” I am by no means an expert on organizational culture but I sure am a product of it!

Jerome Alexander MBA CPA