Wednesday, May 2, 2012

You Can't Do That!

In any organization, there are always people who will find reasons why something can't be done, rather than just doing it.

I use the United States Postal Service (USPS) online Click-n-Ship, which is a great tool, as you can create Priority Mail, Express Mail, and even overseas customs forms, right from your computer.   Plus, you get a small discount on the postage, free package tracking, and since you are using the service online, you can drop your packages in a postal box, or leave them at your mailbox, without having to go to the Post Office itself.

Seems like a pretty keen system, right?   But in some cases, it doesn't work, as some Postal workers know less about postal regulations than the customers do.

I am not bashing the Post Office here, just using it as an example.  In any organization, there are the types of people who push papers around whose first instinct, in any given problem is, "Well, you can't do that!" even if it could be done.

For example, in sending these Priority Mail packages, I have had USPS employees return them to me claiming there was "no postage" on them.   Clearly this is a problem in training, as they don't recognize the company's own online labels as having postage.

Still others will reject the package on the grounds that "anything over 10 ounces has to be hand-carried to the Post Office!" - even though the regulations clearly state that with the online label (which tracks the source of the package) no such hand-carrying is required.

In other cases, they return a package because "You don't have four copies of the customs forms!" even though for International Priority Mail you need only one form (a sticker label).  Their gut instinct is to say "NO!" instead of just tossing the package on the pile and letting it go through the process.

The list goes on and on, but the common denominator is the knee-jerk instinct on the part of some folks to use "NO" as their first response to any given question.

There is an old saying in the military, I am told, that it is easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.   And that saying has a lot of currency in this world (except, perhaps, when it comes to building permits).

Streamlining any organization is as simple as just getting rid of these few people, who acts as bottlenecks in any organization - stifling productivity for no apparent reason other than their own need to feel in control.   You can spot people like this when they routinely say things like:
  • You can't do that!
  • It's never been done that way before!
  • You didn't fill out the form right.
  • You'll need approval.
  • I'm not authorized to do that.
On the other hand, you have an effective worker, when you hear things like:
  • Let's figure out how to make this work.
  • This is not on the form, but we can modify it.
  • I can push this through.
  • Let's do this!
The latter attitude shows that procedures, while important, are not all-encompassing.   It is not the procedure that is critical to a business, but getting the work done.   The first kind of worker focuses on the minutiae of procedure, regardless of whether it is actually a hindrance to productivity.   The second kind realizes that procedures and processes, while designed to provide safeguards, are not in and of themselves, productivity.

Of course, it could be that the problem is not with the individual, but the organization.  In some organizations, there is a culture of fear that is cultivated, intentionally or unintentionally, that stifles innovation and creativity.   Employees are told (or it is insinuated) that they have to be perfect at all times or risk losing their jobs.   And even if the slightest mistake is made, they are severely castigated.

This phenomenon was parodied effectively in the movie Office Space, where a hapless worker has no fewer than three bosses browbeat him for not putting a cover sheet on a fax he sent.   Why this is important (or indeed, why fax cover sheets were even necessary) is not the issue - he failed to follow procedures!

In my years with General Motors, United Technologies, United Parcel, the Federal Government, and various Law Firms, I ran into this sort of thinking a lot - people who were more concerned about following the Rules rather than being productive.   In their mindset, so long as all the rules were followed to the letter, it didn't matter if the department, division, or company was losing money.   And in many instances, this resulted in the downfall of the organization.

At GM, the salary employees played the game meticulously, and followed all the rules, all the way down the drain.   No one was "at fault" for the demise of GM - after all, everyone did their job, right to spec!   But somehow, crummy cars came out of the end of the assembly lines, many of them selling for below their construction cost.

I ran into this at UTC-Carrier, when I applied for a Co-Op position while on leave of absence.   You could just see the HR manager's mind start to melt.   He hauled out Volume IV of the sixteen-volume Company Procedure Manual and explained why it couldn't be done.   My bosses explained they wanted it done, and just do it.   Fortunately, real needs trumped arbitrary rules written on paper.

The Government, of course is hidebound by Rules, and the reasons for this are clear - people scream bloody murder whenever a government official even sneezes, so everyone has to be walking on pins and needles all the time.  Say one wrong thing, and well, you're toast - even if the "wrong thing" turns out later to be taken out of context!

And this is perhaps why Government is destined to fail in so many incidents - they cannot manage effectively with 330 million supervisors looking over their shoulder, second-guessing everything they do - often for partisan political advantage.   You are not allowed to make one small mistake, not allowed to innovate, not allowed to even bend the Rules, when it clearly would be to the advantage of the Country.  In short, you cannot be innovative, effective, or even efficient.  It is a setup for failure from the get-go, particularly in these polarizing political times.

It is a funny thing, but if a major-league batter strikes out at bat, he is not fired the next day.  Why?  Because in baseball, it is recognized that even the best players are effective only some of the time.   But in the business world - and in government - we paralyze ourselves with this fear of failure.   And as I have discussed before, Fear is the least useful emotion.   And failure is nothing to be ashamed of or afraid of.

And maybe that is the problem right there - the culture of an organization.   If everyone is afraid all the time, they are less and less productive, and more and more fearful of making mistakes.   And as a result, nothing gets done.