Friday, January 13, 2006

Consensus Building

I've met a few people in my time who were enthusiastic about hard work. And it was just my luck that all of them happened to be men I was working for at the time. ~Bill Gold

A co-worker of mine claims to be envious of my experience in various industries. While I find any sort of envy gratifying, I am forced to explain that what he sees as “years of varied experience”, most people would see as “inability to hold a job.” Part of this was due to a desire to earn more money; one of the ridiculous rules of career-building is that you get more money faster by switching jobs than by staying in the same place. That generally presumes that you are staying in the same career path, which means I spent over 20 years in Quality Control, which I came to detest fairly quickly. Oh, there were some good times, perhaps 2 years worth, accumulated as a day here and a day there over the 20-plus years.
Another reason for changing jobs was to get somewhere warm. I spent 33 years in Ohio, where winters can be cold as a well-digger's ankles. Colder, actually, because a well-digger is standing in water, not an ice cube. I don't care how much global warming we get, winters along Lake Erie will always be miserable.
Finally, after all that time, I got smart and got a job I liked where it was reasonably warm. Since I'm pretty satisfied with things (at least until someone offers me a hundred thou a year to sit at home and watch cartoons), I don't try to screw that up by writing about my current employment. But since I've been at so many places, I've got lots of other options if I feel like talking about the workplace.
Today's option involves a fine gentleman for whom I once toiled, who I shall call Sam, because that happened to be his name. (I'm not long on imagination, and I hate proofreading, as you can probably tell, so if I used a phony name, I'd forget it halfway through the story and Fred or George would have become Sam anyway.)
Sam was a good boss. He knew his field (which was unusual enough for a Quality Control manager), cared about his people, and managed to uphold the company party line while still actually getting work done. He did have one quirk, though. He had a passion for achieving consensus on anything. Sam had taken some management courses in college, and in one of them he had learned that one way to get people to accept an unpopular alternative (translation: a stinker of an idea from upper management) was to maneuver the victim—er, employee to suggest the alternative himself. This is done by proposing objections to every sensible alternative raised by the employee. You might think this is difficult, but the manager takes notes while upper management is shooting down all of his sensible alternatives, so he is well prepared for the employee.
This desire to make the employee the “owner” of the big wheels' dumb idea sometimes drove Sam to silly verbal gymnastics with us, especially since we had taken the same management courses in college and knew when we were being manipulated. On one occasion, we had a meeting that included two Quality Engineers (one of which was me) and one of our floor supervisors. The task at hand was to increase the number of statistical studies we were taking. We needed to do this because a vice president had read an article about how neat statistical studies were and how the more of them you had, the more in-control you were. Of course, the article was about high-volume operations where the sample sizes are meaningful, and jobs run for long periods, making it easy to set up a series of studies to track trends.
Unfortunately, we were a low-volume specialty-equipment shop, where jobs might run for a day or two. To make matters worse, the parts were complicated, and getting high numbers of studies meant many time-consuming measurements that might impact our ability to actually check machine setups. As a result, Ed (also his real name; I told you I’ve got no imagination), the other Quality Engineer, who was being tasked with this increase in studies, brought up the reasonable argument that a study “quota” based on small samples from short job runs was counterproductive.
Now, Sam knew that as well as we did, but the veep had tasked him to generate some fixed number of studies per week, and, by Henry Ford, he was going to produce those studies. He couldn't just come out and say that, though, because he needed consensus or “buy-in” on Ed's part. The trouble is that Ed wasn't buying today. So back and forth they went for half an hour, with Sam asking Ed how many studies per week he could provide, and Ed asking Sam how many he had to have. Finally, I said, “Sam, just tell Ed how many studies the VP wants each week, so we can get out of here and get some work done.” Sam looked me, then looked at Ed, told him the number. Ed said, “OK,” and we went back to work. I figured Sam was cured of his consensus fix, but I was wrong.
Not long after, for reasons that still elude me, Sam promoted me to Quality Engineering Supervisor. It's not that I didn't want the job; I did. But, in hindsight, I wonder whatever possessed him to believe that I was management material. Lord knows, I proved often enough over the years that I am most certainly not a good manager. But, for good or for ill, there I was. One day Sam called me into his office and began to ask some “hypothetical” questions about how I thought we might “improve” Quality Control operations. To each thing I suggested, he raised a reasonably-stated but lame objection. Finally, exasperated, I blurted out, “Sam, tell me what cockamamie idea the boss has. I'll tell you it's stupid, then we'll try to figure out how to make it work.”
Sam just stared at me for at least a full minute, then he got up and shut his office door. Oh, lord, I thought, now I've gone and done it. He's going to rip me up for being uncooperative, not a team player, and/or a general jerk. He sat down at his desk, looked at me gravely, and said, “You won't believe what those idiots want us to do.” Then we spent an hour figuring out how to make it work.
It was a watershed moment. Sam never played the “buy-in” game with me again. He'd call me in, close the door, and rant about the moronic idea from the wheels. Then I'd rant for a while. When we both felt better, we'd work out how to get it done. It was very efficient.
It also had an interesting side benefit. I'm sure I got more out of my employees because they thought I was getting all kinds of lumps each time Sam closed that door. I think they felt sorry for me. I don't know how sorry they would have felt if they had known that more than a few of those closed-door meetings ended up in long discussions about fishing.
Hey, that's what you can do once you get a concensus.

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