Thursday, August 16, 2012

Earning Your Keep

Many years ago my immediate supervisor and I were under the charge of a manager that had some traits that could at times be extremely exasperating. Perhaps you have worked for a manager with similar traits.

I recall the time when I was assigned a project that required me to create an experimental design for a research project we were undertaking in a laboratory. If you are not familiar with experimental design, it is a way to design a set of experiments that will maximize the amount of information from your experiments using a minimum numbers of operating conditions. This particular project involved turning crystals into granules in a heated rotary drum. I had a college student assisting me in the lab. We knew that for the first day of operation we would be running at conditions that would most likely just result in hot crystals exiting the drum, but that is the nature of an experimental design. You must operate across a wide range of conditions.

We had been running our test just long enough to reach steady state when the manager came into the lab to check on our progress. He took one look at the equipment and the end product and said something like, “This isn’t working. You need to change your operating parameters.” He then proceeded to change the heat levels and turn valves. In short order we had mud coming out of the rotary drum. At this point the manager said, “I’ll leave the rest to you,” and left the lab. Needless to say, we shut down the experiment and began cleaning out the equipment. One day of operation had been lost.

A couple of years later I had a different immediate supervisor, but that same manager. I was tasked with creating a PERT chart, which is basically a flow chart, for a new project on which we would be working. In those days, PERT charts were created using Post-It notes on a large sheet of paper rather than on a computer. Well, after a couple of days of effort, I completed the PERT chart. My supervisor looked it over and liked it. He then showed it to our manager. Afterwards, my supervisor came to me and said the manager wanted to make a few changes. I asked what they were. After explaining the changes to me, I informed him that if we made those changes, the PERT chart would be incorrect. He did not care. He just wanted to please the manager. So, even though I didn’t like it, I made the changes. My supervisor then showed the manager the updated PERT chart. He once again came to me and said that the manager wanted to make even more changes. I again asked what they were. Upon explaining the changes, I informed my supervisor that if we made those changes, the PERT chart would be back to what it had been when I originally created it. He said we needed to make the change. While I agreed that the changes were needed to get the PERT chart back to its original correct state, I was so frustrated that I just told my supervisor that if he wanted it changed he needed to do it himself. I then left the room, and he made the changes.

I have told these stories many times over the years. I have often wondered what drives such a person to act so impulsively. I believe I now understand. The underlying motivation is one of wanting to “Earn Your Keep”. This manager was in a position of authority over other employees. If the employees were mostly doing things right, never needing correction, then the manager might wonder what his or her purpose is. So, not wanting to feel useless, they take action, even if the action is detrimental to the goals of the group.

Can you think of some other people that are like my manager? Of course you can. It’s our political leaders, especially those in Washington DC. In their case, they are in positions of power over the entire country. They feel like they have to Earn Their Keep. Whenever a problem arises in some part of the country, they just assume that the private sector is incapable of solving it. So, they go to work creating laws and regulations that are supposed to help us. Or protect us. Or make our lives better. However, all too often they leave us citizens with a muddy rotary drum that has to be cleaned out. Then they are aghast when we citizens complain and tell them that their “solutions” only made things worse.

Listen up Washington. Sometimes, probably even most of the time, the best thing you can do is get out of the way. We are not incompetent. We can solve problems without governmental intervention. You just go about handling those things the Constitution authorizes you to do, which is primarily providing us with protection from criminals and foreign threats and protecting our individual rights. We’ll take care of the rest.

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