Thursday, November 24, 2022

Firing the Right People

In any organization, 50% of the people do 90% of the work.  Fire the other 50% and your organization will prosper.  Problem is, usually the wrong 50% get fired.

Elon Musk is getting a lot of flack for being a bull in the China shop - firing everyone and then realizing he needs them to keep Twitter from imploding.  Yet, there is a certain logic to what he is attempting to do.  When I worked at GM and UTC, as well as the government and private law firms, it always amazed me that there was a core group of people doing most of the real work - and an awful lot of slackers doing little or nothing.

Go on one of these "antiwork" discussion groups and you will hear tales from people whose job description was forgotten - they had little to do but show up for work every day and do the crossword puzzle.  Sometimes this goes on for years before someone figures it out and lays them off.

This is why, I guess, when an organization exceeds the size of Dunbar's Number, it becomes increasingly more inefficient.   People spend more and more time on social grooming and for each additional person hired, an incrementally smaller amount of work gets done - like a differential equation.  Eventually, you get to the point where the last person hired does no work at all.

The problem, of course, is that if you want to prune the tree, you have to cut off the right branches so as to not kill the tree entirely.  And sadly, some "managers" go all lumberjack and just cut the tree down, as we seem to be seeing with Twitter.  Often, the people doing the pruning are from "corporate" and make decisions based on spreadsheets, not on boots-on-the-ground data.

I recounted before at one company, we had two test room Engineers who were charged with designing and maintaining test rooms.  One would carefully document every detail in big binders and schematics, with all the wiring color-coded.  His test rooms never needed repairs, always worked properly, and worked efficiently.  The other "Engineer" (who had no degree) never documented a thing, and wired everything in a rat's nest of yellow wiring.  He would periodically unplug one wire when everyone was at lunch, so as to cause the whole test room to crash.  Everyone would be looking for him (he was sleeping the ductwork) and when they finally found him in the restroom, he would come back and plug that one wire back in, and thus be a "hero" for a day.  Managers marveled at how "indispensable" he was.

Meanwhile, back at corporate, a Vice President is puzzling as to why we have two test room engineers and then fires the one with the highest labor cost.  The guy who actually did his job and documented everything was let go.  He had some health issues and was older, so he cost the company more money.  The remaining guy was useless, of course - and couldn't even read a schematic.  They laid off the wrong guy.

But I get it, what they were trying to do.  The company was losing money on certain products and they needed to cut back on overhead.  Today, that whole factory is shut down, gone, and the building bulldozed to the ground.  And everyone there I knew is either retired or long-dead.  Life goes on, and a new factory will be built somewhere else, making new products.   You can't live in the past forever.

Cutting the fat from an organization is damn difficult to do.  So I appreciate the struggle Mr. Musk is going through.  What makes it so hard is that the people who do the least amount of real work spend most of their time trying to make themselves look important and indispensable - taking credit for the work of others (which Musk himself, does) and basically brown-nosing and gladhanding management to the point where mangers say, "That fellow is a real go-getter!"  Meanwhile, their opinion of the guy in the back room, doing all the real coding, is poor.  "I never see that guy!  Does he even work here?  What does he really contribute to the bottom line, anyway?"

It is a pattern we see in companies all the time - they lay off the workers and keep the slackers.  Or worse, the real workers see the writing on the wall and get jobs elsewhere, until the whole company is nothing but coke-snorting bullshit artists.  And you can't keep going on bullshit and cocaine forever.  Problem is, you can't convince a coke-head of that.   It goes without saying that if you try to point this folly out to senior management, you've basically put a target on your back.

I am so glad to be retired.  It amazes me that any organization gets anything done at all, considering how everyone works at cross-purposes or doesn't work at all.  Henry Ford was a genius in using the assembly line - a mechanism that forces you to focus on one job, done on a certain time scale.  If you don't do that job, it becomes readily apparent to everyone.  Of course, this has the effect of dehumanizing people and turning them into machines.  Seems you can't win at this game!  Besides, while an assembly line may work for putting "bolts on cars" (as one of my professors at GMI phrased it) it doesn't function for more esoteric and creative work.

Firing people based on how many lines of code they wrote doesn't take into account that some simple tasks use repetitive lines of code, while some more difficult tasks use far fewer.  In fact, in programming, the hardest thing to do is make compact code.  Sure, I could solve an iterative equation by simply writing out each iteration - and using thousands of lines of code in the process.  It is a little harder to create a loop that solves each iteration.  According to Musk, the former gets you promoted, the latter gets you fired - and then he whines about how the code is bloated and slow to load.

Go Figure.