Sunday, April 26, 2009

The iron law of bureaucracy

I recently came across the curious case of Mr X, whose job is similar to mine: he supports an ERP database, although his db is more financially orientated whereas mine is more production orientated. Mr X and I have worked before at a previous company and with a different program. I inherited the ERP database that he had helped to construct and supposedly maintain. Over the course of several years, I simplified and streamlined the procedures which use the database, making life much easier for its users.

Mr X was initially employed by a senior manager, a champion of Mr X, for a six month period, during which he was supposed to move his company from one ERP program to another. Apparently, once that period was up, he claimed that his work had not yet finished. After sixteen months, he is still there. It appears that Mr X has utilised a variant of Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureacracy (see below) to ensure that he never leaves; instead of using his energy to improve conditions for users, he uses his energy to keep his job (something very important in these difficult economic times).

Apparently he had kept all administrative powers to himself, so much so that a user (who might be described as a power user) has to ask Mr X to open accounts for new customers. I, on the other hand, have little interest in being so involved in day to day operations and gladly give to certified users the privilege (pun intended) of opening accounts. If I spent all day doing that, then I would have no time to spend on doing interesting things, such as developing and training.

According to this power user, an outside person was called in the other day to examine the database and make recommendations. Things would never have got to this level had there not been a change in management, in which Mr X's champion left the company.

Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy states that in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representative who work to protect any teacher including the most incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions.

Knowledge hoarding

Consider the case of Ms X. She has been working in the company long enough to look at a customer order and instinctively know what raw materials have to be ordered. As she doesn't trust the stock levels of raw materials being reported by the ERP program, she goes onto the factory floor and performs her own stock taking. She then figures out how much she has to order, based on what there is and what is needed, and then places that order. Some people would consider Ms X a very important worker, but I would consider her a very dangerous person.

She is an example of a knowledge hoarder, someone who keeps her albeit important knowledge of company procedure and needs to herself instead of sharing. What happens when Ms X is ill or on holiday? Does the factory stop producing because no one knows what to order? And in fact, no one knows what to order because Ms X, intentionally or otherwise, has sabotaged the ERP database by not entering essential information into it. And what happens should the order be changed (as frequently happens) after Ms X has seen it? The purchase order becomes out of date, and items that we don't need get ordered (and probably items that we do need don't get ordered), thus building up stocks of materials which possibly will never be used.

Not surprisingly, Ms X opposes all the suggestions for change that I have made. She says that she can't trust the ERP program and that the procedures necessary are too time involving. Whilst it's true that the ERP program has to have complete and correct data in order to work properly, it is possible to make small changes in procedure which will improve matters. If today we make a 10% improvement, and tomorrow we make another 10% improvement, then we are well on the way to making a 100% improvement, whereas if we make no improvement today, we will never make any improvement.

I can see two possible reasons for Ms X's behaviour, one conscious and one subconscious. The conscious reason is that as long as she hoards the necessary knowledge, she can't be fired. Should management be foolish enough to fire her because of her knowledge hoarding, then the company would be in a worse position that it is now, because then nobody would know what to do. Apparently, she uses this power as a stick with which to improve her conditions of employment, but I don't know about this personally.

The subconscious reason is due to fear of change. According to "One small step can change your life", a structure within the brain called the amygdala is responsible for this fear. The amgydala is absolutely crucial to our survival. It controls the fight-or-flight response, an alarm mechanism that we share with all other mammals. It was designed to alert parts of the body for action in the face of immediate danger. One way it accomplishes this is to slow down or stop other functions such as rational and creative thinking that could interfere with the physical ability to run or fight (Dr Robert Maurer, pp 23-4). Dr Maurer's solution to this automatic response is to make small changes, those which don't "set off" the amygdala's alarm.

Frequently making such small changes allows the brain to create new neural connections, which eventually enable the person to internalise the behaviour required. From my point of view, the small changes which are made help improve the ERP database.

This is why I'm not looking for comprehensive plans which change overnight everything that we do. Rather, I look for small procedures which can be changed and improved without raising anybody's hackles. Such procedures stand a much better chance of being implemented, and when they do, they make the possibility of further changes easier.

I'm not sure how I'm going to overcome Ms X's unwillingness to change/share her knowledge, but I do know that I'm going to raise the subject with her superiors.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Positive changes

Change is best absorbed into the corporate culture when its impetus comes from field workers, not from senior management.

A few weeks ago, I was approached by a mid-level manager to help with quality control reports. She holds a monthly meeting in which cases of poor quality control are discussed; the basis for the meeting is a spreadsheet (to mangle a quote from the 60s, whenever I hear the word 'Excel', I reach for my pistol*) in which people have manually entered the order details, the problem and the solution. This spreadsheet is accessed by many people, which makes it an IT nightmare, as well as difficult for those people to access, update and retrieve.

My immediate solution was to create a sub-form (and an underlying table) connected to the lines in a customer order, where the various data could be added. We discussed which fields were needed - person name, department, problem and solution - and the actual implementation in the ERP program was finished within an hour. As a form on its own is normally of little use, I also wrote a report which would extract the data from the orders and display it in useful form.

As the Passover holiday intervened almost immediately after doing this, I forgot about it. When I returned to work after the holiday, I checked a table which I keep for my own benefit in which I list all the forms and reports which I have developed (this helps when someone phones and wants help with 'their' report - as if I remember what they're talking about), in order to see what I was working on prior to the holiday. Coming across this table and its report, I decided to check how much data had been added. I was pleasantly surprised to see that in the short time that the form had existed, it had been used by several people.

Of course, I wasn't too pleased that there were so many lines, because each line means a fault with a product, but from the IT point of view, more lines means more use, which means that the change has been absorbed.

I wasn't involved in disseminating the fact of this form's existence - the manager who asked for the development had seen to that - so I was pleasantly surprised on Thursday when someone called and asked how to use the form, someone whose need to use that form would not have immediately occurred to either me or the manager.

If people in the front lines need an improvement or addition to the ERP program, then that change will generally be embraced enthusiastically, because they can see the immediate value of the change. They also feel ownership of that change, a feeling which gives them a responsibility to make sure that other people utilise that change.

When announcements of change come from senior management, they tend to be perceived as yet another piece of interference from above, something designed to make our job harder, something irrelevant to our needs and something which is divorced from our experience. Part of my job is how to make such changes relevant to field workers, how to make them embrace these changes, help them identify with the change and take ownership. This is not an easy task.

Next episode: knowledge hoarding and the resistance to change.

* After writing this, I discovered that the original quote comes from a play written by Hanns Johst and is normally attributed to Nazi leader Hermann Goring ("when I hear the word 'culture', I reach for my gun"). Oh dear, I never thought that I would be quoting Nazis.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Dangerous ideas

I should point out at the beginning that I don't like change very much in my personal life, and was quite outspoken in my distaste of the huge changes that my kibbutz has undergone in the past few years. Putting this simply, I "signed up" to live on a kibbutz on the understanding that such and such were the rules; in the past few years, those basic rules have been changed (often to their opposites) and so at times I feel that I have been lied to. But I'm won't be writing about such long reaching and personal changes here.

At work I've been developing recently what some might define as revolutionary or even dangerous ideas. Such an idea changes the current method of operation in some area, hopefully for the better. These ideas are considered dangerous because they change the status quo and cause people to realign themselves. Such ideas are generally designed to improve management's control and understanding of the business procedures, to make life easier for those implementing the procedures, and like all good doctors, to do no harm.

Not all of my ideas stick, but there have been some very good ones over the years which helped my company perform better (or at least improve management's knowledge of how well we were performing).

As I have probably written before, at the end of 2006, my company was merged with another company. Both companies make office furniture; we make chairs, they make desks and cupboards. We had the same owners.

Until the end of 2008, both companies were run almost autonomously, especially in my field of IT, and there was very little knowledge passing between them. 'My' company had its business practices, and 'they' had theirs. This was often a source of frustration to me, as I could see places where I could improve their practices, but there were high placed managers who refused all changes, and generally tended to demean and even insult me, normally claiming that I didn't understand anything and that 'my' company was doing everything wrong. There were one or two practices in the other company which were suitable for implementation in 'my' company, and these were accepted almost immediately.

This year, for various reasons, those managers are no longer working in the company, and suddenly I find myself in great demand to improve the business practices of the other company. Not only is nobody opposing me, I am being encouraged to change and improve. When one considers the fact that a year ago I was on the verge of leaving, one can see what a huge change has occurred.

Most of the changes that I have suggested are practices which are being used daily by 'my' company, and have been in use one way or another for several years, so they are tried and tested. Sometimes it's easy for me to think of these changes, and sometimes hard, but one thing is clear: the development of these ideas tends to be very fast, whereas the implementation tends to be very slow.

The implementation is slow because other people have to absorb the ideas; they have to overcome their natural opposition to change, and they have to accept the ideas. As they are Israelis, they also have to argue about them. I wrote three years ago about change, and am aware that certain changes have to be performed slowly and in small steps. Unfortunately, changes in usage of ERP programs require that everything is changed at once; if one changes only a little bit, it can be worse than not changing.

At the moment, I am feeling a little like Copernicus or Galileo. In the 'old' days, astronomers constructed a cosmology in which Earth was the centre of the universe. In order to support this cosmology, astronomers were forced to make more and more special cases, or obfuscate the theory in order to allow observation to match theory. Occam's razor had yet to be invented. Copernicus showed how a helioconcentric cosmology better matched observation with a simpler theory.

Coming down to Earth, the 'other' company constructed a series of operations in order to support the admittedly complicated processes of production extant in their factory. On the basis of these operations, more esoteric operations were added, and so on. None of these operations are supported in the 'native' version of our ERP program, but because the program is extensible, extensions were created. These extensions became part and parcel of their way of life, and became even the focus for 'religious' wars (well, arguments).

Then I come along, and say "if we do such and such, then we can accomplish the same thing with less effort and better use of the native ERP functions". As people have become so attached to their way of doing things, it is exceedingly difficult for them to understand, let alone embrace, what I am suggesting.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Thermomineral baths

It's holiday time here in Israel. Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the countryside, either walking or simply having picnics on any available stretch of grass. I've been at home most of the time, but yesterday I decided to take the family to the thermomineral baths at a place called Hamei Yo'av, which is about 50 minutes drive from here. As I said, why bother going to the Czech Republic (I had this dream of traveling to Karlovy Vary, aka Carlsbad, for the spa) when we can travel only 50 kilometres to get the same treatment.

The online brochure for the springs here shows plenty of nubile young women, but they were in short supply yesterday. The baths were filled mainly with older people, but of course one doesn't go to these baths to see and to be seen, but rather to relax in the warm (37-39 degrees Centigrade) water. We might have been given contrary information: on my previous visit to the spa several years ago, I had been told that one should not stay in the water for more than 30 minutes, whereas my wife was told that 10 minutes was the limit. I stayed in for about 25 minutes and would have been content to stay for longer. The water is not only warm but also contains various minerals; the smell of sulphur is quite strong when one approaches the baths, but being almost anosmic, it doesn't bother me too much.

After the baths, we went the whole hog and had a relaxing 45 minute massage (booked the day previously; we didn't want to take the chance of turning up to find that the masseurs were fully booked). I've never had this kind of massage before; the only massages which I have had have been of the therapeutic kind in which one's muscles are pulled, prodded and stretched in ways that nature never intended. Yesterday was a much gentler experience, from head to toe. My wife very much enjoys this sort of thing (she had a massage in Eilat when we were there a few years ago when my son and I went scuba diving) whereas on yesterday's basis, I can take it or leave it. The massage and baths were certainly relaxing: I was a bit worried about driving home, and both she and I were falling asleep by 8pm.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Dave Stewart/Barbara Gaskin - Green and Blue

There comes an awkward point in the interaction between any musical artist and myself when I find that I don't like the latest offering/creation of the artist.

The first time that this happened was in 1973, when Peter Hammill released "Chameleon in the shadow of the night". Until then, Peter and Van der Graaf could do no wrong, although I admit there were parts of 'Lighthouse keepers' which were on the edge. "Chameleon" was a slap in the face, a complete change of style, and it took me both by surprise and by undelight. At the time, I was in correspondence with Mr Hammill, and it took all the courage I could muster to say that I didn't like the album. When pressed, I said that it was too empty, and Peter wrote back saying that's what he was capable of now, it's no longer a band but me solo. In time, I began to appreciate and cherish the album, but again Mr Hammill and I parted company a few years later, around the time of "pH7". The songs simply did not interest me. In fact, although I've bought a few solo albums since that time, as well as the two new Van der Graaf disks, nothing has caught my fancy very much.

I've written previously about how Jackson Browne fell out of favour, primarily by staying the same, by not increasing his harmonic vocabulary and by writing songs that didn't interest me. Or maybe it was me that was changing.

The great Richard Thompson is also facing decreased purchases by me, although maybe I am being unfair to him in that his material is taking longer and longer to sink in. Randy Newman hasn't passed the watermark yet, although I had my doubts about "Bad Love" and "Faust". Kate Bush after "The hounds of love" also falls into this category, although I hadn't been totally gung-ho about all her previous output either.

And now we come to Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin. Dave was the organist in "Hatfield and the North", "National Health" and "Bruford", groups who produced albums which occupied a lot of my listening time from 1975 onwards. After the dissolution of "Bruford" in around 1981, Dave turned his attention to making intelligent pop singles (is that an oxymoron?) but still managed to disappear off the radio. Barbara was one of the three Northettes who contributed eerie vocals to the Hatfield canon, and then apparently linked up with Dave in real life.

Their 1991 album, "Spin", was like a breath of fresh air, with intelligent music and witty lyrics. Certainly not Hafield or National Health in terms of song length or construction, but definitely there was a continuing line. Since then, it's been a long wait until their new, hot off the press, "Green and blue" disk which arrived last week.

Why did I start off by writing about the awkward point when an artist whose previous work I have loved creates something which leaves me cold? Because G+B leaves me extremely cold. Let's look at "Spin" again for a moment: it's possible to say that the songs on this disk fall into one of three categories: covers, witty uptempo songs, and slow dirges. Generally speaking, I liked the covers (especially "Eight miles high"), loved the uptempo songs (especially the song about the 60s) and tolerated the dirges. This might have something to do with Barbara's voice, which tends to be non-descript. Anyway, G+B is composed almost entirely of slow dirges, and at the moment the best track on G+B is about as good as the worst track on "Spin".

I can't really name any names or give any examples because it all sounds near enough the same to me, and nothing has impressed. I will listen and listen again, but I have the feeling that this one is a dud - or to be more polite and probably more correct, my vision and their vision have parted company.