Digging a hole...
I spent two summers during college as a technician for New York Telephone, the old local phone arm of Ma Bell, before she spawned NYNEX, which became Verizon.
I was a summer fill-in for vacationing full-timers. It was a great gig. I got to ride around swanky bits of Westchester County in a van, most of which had been customized by their regular drivers, including some rad stereo sets.
My job was to go into vacant or soon to be vacant homes and apartments and install the new “modular” phone jacks. You know, the outlets you plugged a phone into. The phones with cords. Which connected by wire to the overhead lines outside your house and in ancient days formed one the triumverate of household connections to the outside world (the others being broadcast TV and terrestrial radio.) One ringy dingy…
But I digress.
My job was to prepare folks for the new telephonic technology coming into their lives…phones you could buy, rather than rent (most folks never realized that the phones in their homes were the property of the Bell System) and phones with push buttons rather than rotary dials. Oh, the wonders of the brave new world! It all seems so quaint.
But I digress.
I would enter the homes and remove the old wiring and harnesses, and swap in the new modular connection. Every Monday I would be given a raft of addresses (I don’t recall how many, but it didn’t seem an unreasonable number to your naive and earnest reporter) and expected to call on each one, gain entry and take care of business. There was no daily quota…that summer, anyway. I was instructed to try to gain entry at each address three times over the course of the week.
The reality was that you were successful maybe 25% percent of the time. For a variety of reasons: folks were at work or hadn’t yet moved; places were vacant and inaccessible; some folks didn’t want the intrusion; mad dogs, etc. It was not a terribly productive or efficient system, but what did I know? I was making $150 a week and enjoying cruising the un-mean streets of Larchmont and Mamaroneck.
The first week, I covered about 300 addresses and submitted the worksheets at the close of the day on Friday. I had checked in by pay phone (free!) a few times during the week. Was told I was doing fine.
On Monday, I got pulled aside by one of the full-timers, the union rep. “Hey college boy,” he beckoned, waving me over to a corner of the garage. He reeked of tobacco and black coffee. At 7:30 am. “That was quite a week you had.”
“Yeah,” I answered. “Piece a cake.”
“You are making us look bad,” the longtimer snarled/whispered.
“We don’t do that many tickets,” he said.
“Why? It’s easy,” I responded, being naive and earnest.
“Cause we don’t. You’ll do 50.”
“You’ll do 50. Pace yourself.”
“Ooookkkkaaaayyy,” I said, not understanding one bit what was going on. But being a college boy I was smart enough to get the message.
That Friday I handed in 54 sheets.
On Monday, I was asked to see the supervisor who had trained me, Mr. Stump. He was aptly named. He was mildly confused and rooted in place.
“Did you run into issues last week,” he asked. “You covered a lot less ground. What happened?” I explained. Mr. Stump pursed his lips, and sighed. “Yeah, well. Those guys play the system. Do the right thing. Cover as many as you can.”
Did I mention the part about being naive and earnest? I did the “right thing” and covered as many tickets as I could all summer long. (Narrator: This made Al no friends.)
The next summer, the entire system had changed. Management had taken control - by what means I never knew. There now was a daily quota, and one had to meet it, no matter what. 25 tickets each day. You had to call in three times daily, with progress reports. There was an end-of-week meeting where everyone had to review their work. It all seemed a draconian response to the problem. The regulars groused continually and filed grievances with their union. Weekly meetings were tense and darkly comedic; a mashup of Goodfellas and The Office. I was glad to abandon that ship at summer’s end.
This was my first exposure to the management v. labor dynamic. The rank-and-file clearly did not want to work harder or smarter and the line managers could not devise a system to get the productivity improvements they wanted. The do-si-do continued until - and after - the breakup of Ma Bell.
W. Edwards Deming, whose work pioneered quality improvement in organizations, believed that to attain quality and productivity success, it was about the system, not the individual components. Deming also believed that a “system cannot improve itself.” Meaning: those inside an organization can’t really solve their own issues. Similarly, Albert Einstein once observed, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” That one should hang in every CEOs office.
Organizations mostly fail because they have great difficulty - mostly from lack of resources, but also from a lack of will and vision - changing their internal dynamics. They fall into a hole that they struggle to escape. They fail to heed the First Law of Holes: When you find yourself in one, quit digging.
Quit digging. Simple advice. Devilishly hard to do in a work culture that prizes forward movement at all times.
Next week…stepping back to move ahead.