Friday’s Fable: THE BEES AND THE BEETLES*

Posted by jlubans on July 27, 2012  •  Leave comment (1)

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Against people who enjoy only carnal pleasures. 
Once upon a time, the bees invited the beetles to dinner. The beetles arrived and when dinner was served the bees offered the beetles some honey and honeycomb. The beetles barely ate anything and then flew away. Next the beetles invited the bees, and when dinner was served, they offered the bees a plate full of dung. The bees wouldn't eat even a single bite and instead they flew straight back home.”

Often Aesopian translators and editors added their own morals (or their take on the underlying meaning of each fable). Morals appear at the front, back and sometimes in the middle. When at the front, like in today’s fable, it is called the promythium, the lesson before the fable. Sometimes the morals appear to have little relationship to the story (like ours, above). One translator (Lloyd W. Daly) “defiantly titled” his translation: Aesop without Morals. (He relegated all the morals to an appendix).
If I were to put an apt moral to this story of bees and beetles, it would be that when we are confronted with a different culture we should still be polite and respectful.** In this story, the dung beetles – lowly creatures when compared to the universally admired honeybee – exhibit better manners than the bees! Confronted with an exotic (for them) food, the dung beetles at least give it a try. The bees instead turn up their noses and buzz off!
Perhaps more relevant to the work place is the moral that we may value our contribution more than that of another unit, e.g. marketing over production. In fact both our contributions are important – indeed, essential. When we dismiss, criticize or ridicule the good faith efforts of other workers we poison the work place.

*An Aesop's fable, (401) translated by Laura Gibbs (2002)
**The gold medal for creative interpretation that helped me get past the promythium goes to Sheryl Anspaugh and Mara A. Lubans!.

“You’ve gotta love the business.”*

Posted by jlubans on July 25, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

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A new book by Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (with Douglas Century), Making a Difference: Stories of Vision and Courage from America’s Leaders, includes a chapter on Costco’s co-founder, Jim Sinegal. (Sinegal shuns interviews because of the media’s tendency to glorify the boss, but he willingly spoke with Sullenberger.) I was drawn to the interview because I like Costco's quality and prices and have heard, from time to time, that theirs is a different kind of organization, one that genuinely values customers and employees. As a Costco regular I have noticed over the years, just like Captain Sullenberger, that there is minimal staff turn-over. For some reason, the staff tends to stay; something highly unusual for the retail industry. Indeed, it was seeing the same staff over fifteen years of shopping at Zabar’s, the NYC food emporium, that triggered my interest in finding out why that was. (Chapter 14: A Zabarian Experience in Leading from the Middle.)

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Caption: Jim Sinegal
Sinegal, who retired from Costco in 2011, spoke candidly with Sullenberger about his way of leading and how the Costco culture came into being.
Besides the tiny staff turnover – Costco has less than 10% while Wal-Mart has over 60% - there are other similarities to Zabar’s. Sinegal on pricing: “In traditional retail the thinking is, Gee, I’m selling this thing for ten bucks, I wonder if I can get eleven for it? The customer is never going to know the difference. We look at it and we say, Selling this thing for ten bucks, how do I get it to nine? And if nine, how get it to 8? We want a big gulf between Costco and other retailers.”

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Caption: Murray Klein (1923-2007)
Murray Klein (a partner with Saul and Stanley Zabar and operations manager) was a driving force for taking Zabar’s from a small kosher-only establishment to a world-class food emporium. In the New York Times obituary one colleague said: “Where other vendors would look at a jar of mustard and think, ‘How much can I sell this for?’ Murray would think, ‘How little?’”
Quoting from my Zabar’s chapter, Mr. Klein’s “legend includes the celebrated caviar price war with Macy’s and his riding roughshod over sales reps during the Wild West era of kitchenware surpluses. More important was Mr. Klein’s being a stickler for quality – something never to be taken for granted, it was everyone’s job. He helped instill high standards – the same one’s Saul’s father valued. While no longer a partner (now deceased) his name is the organization’s shorthand for keeping high standards alive. When Saul and Stanley recently refused to sell lobster salad for four days because it did not taste right, that was like Mr. Klein. Scott Goldshine, a Zabar's floor manager, admiringly terms Mr. Klein, “one tough s.o.b” in demanding and getting the best quality and price from suppliers.”

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Caption: Sol Price (1916-2009)
Jim Sinegal has his own Mr. Klein; in his case the legendary Sol Price, the heralded (by most) founder of the big box store concept. For Sinegal, Sol was the gold standard in running a business. Mr. Sinegal, who says he learned everything from Mr. Price, is clear about what it takes to make a business a success: “We have four things to do: “You’ve got to obey the law, you’ve got to take care of your customers, you’ve got to take care of your people, and respect your suppliers.”

Another similarity between Zabar’s and Costco is found in this quote from Mr. Sinegal: “Why should people in retail not be able to have health care for their kids and buy homes and send them to good schools?” Both businesses pay more and provide extensive benefits. In fact, “Costco’s pay is $17 per hour, 42% higher than its fiercest rival, Sam’s Club.” Stock analysts take Costco to task for paying more; one critic went so far as to say that it was better to be a Costco employee than a Costco stockholder! His analysis misses the obvious: there is higher productivity in an organization like Costco than in one like Sam’s Club. One study** found that “When turnover costs and productivity were reckoned, it was cheaper for Costco to pay people more.” At the time of that study 68,000 staff at Costco did the same number of sales as 103,000 staff at Sam’s. As Sinegal said to Sullenberger: “If you hire good people and provide them with good wages and good jobs and an opportunity for a career, then good things will happen in your business.“

There is at least one other similarity between the two retailers: Mr. Price, the boss, was known to pick up trash off the floor of the story; Sullenberger observes that Mr. Sinegal picks up trash off the floor, and I saw Saul Zabar picking up litter on the sidewalk outside Zabar’s at 80th and Broadway. On the upper west side of NYC where Saul’s brother, Eli, runs several high end stores, guess what I saw Eli doing when I came by to interview him? Picking up trash at the store’s entrance! When followers see leaders doing something like this, they are apt to model the behavior. The boss values (and acts!) a clean store. If you respect the boss, you probably will share that value.

The O’Toole and Lawler** study, mentioned above, was about two kinds of firms: Low Cost Operators (LCOs) and High Involvement Companies (HICs). LCOs shift the burden for health care, retirement, and education to others, pay low, and espouse Theory X leadership (Managers make all decisions. Workers cannot be trusted to do what is right). High Involvement Company managers share decision making with staff; they train staff for the big picture and expect understanding of the bottom line; HICs give workers decision making power in their responsibilities; and, HICs, in hard times, look for alternatives to layoffs; they retain staff as a resource in good times and in bad. (Costco, unlike many other retailers) has not lain off any full-time staff during the current economic depression.)

While both of these organizations do an outstanding job, neither Costco nor Zabar’s is a democracy. They are not perfect (e.g. I wish Costco had more American-made stuff) but they are far better than any of their competitors. Why is that so? When you consider how they are organized to get the job done and when you identify the cultural characteristics shared by Costco and by Zabar’s, you begin to define a superior service model for any organization.

NOTES:
* Jim Sinegal’s stated passion for the job (p.301) When he talks to student groups about career choices he emphasizes never take a job you dislike; it’ll do you harm.
** James O’Toole and Edward E. Lawler III, “The Choices Managers Make – Or Don’t.” The Conference Board Review, September/October 2006, v. 44 #5 pp 24-29.

Colorado review of Leading from the Middle

Posted by jlubans on July 22, 2012  •  Leave comment (1)

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Colorado Libraries (volume 36, no.3 (2012) features a review of Leading from the Middle.
Posted on my birthday, June 15, it comes as a belated gift!
Reviewer Joyce Deming, Adult Information Services Librarian, Golden Public Library recommends the book as “an engaging and highly readable collection of essays” and that the reader will “be pleasantly surprised” that the book is not the “typical library management text.”
She concludes: “Library staff at any level in the organization would benefit from reading these essays…."

Friday’s Fable: Jupiter and the Two Sacks*

Posted by jlubans on July 20, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

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Jupiter has given us two sacks to carry. One sack, which is filled with our own faults, is slung across our back, while the other sack, heavy with the faults of others, is tied around our necks. This is the reason why we are blind to our own bad habits but still quick to criticize others for their mistakes.”
Re-reading this little bit of wisdom, I was reminded of one of the major mistakes - along with a multitude of inherent limitations - we are prone to make in performance appraisals, that of the “Fundamental Attribution Error.” In brief, this happens because of our tendency to attribute favorable outcomes for ourselves as caused by our excellent internal qualities (fairness, hard work, perspicacity, etc.) while seeing our failures as caused by external forces (misfortune, envy, etc.) beyond our control.
However, when we view the outcomes of other people we use the opposite view – we tend to see the others’ success as a product of luck and their failure as a reflection of their less than admirable qualities: incompetence, laziness or something else within their control. En Garde!

*An Aesop's fable, translated by Laura Gibbs (2002)



The Office Vigilante

Posted by jlubans on July 11, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: James Grover Thurber (1894 – 1961)
James Thurber’s 1942 humorous crime short story, The Catbird Seat, is among my favorites. I thought about using it as a discussion reading in my Democratic Workplace class in Riga, but because of several instances of American baseball slang – “Are you tearing up the pea patch? Are you hollering down the rain barrel? Are you scraping around the bottom of the pickle barrel? Are you sitting in the catbird seat?" – I decided to make it an optional item.
Mr. Martin, the hero of the story, has taken an intense dislike to Mrs. Ulgine Barrows and her “quacking voice and braying laugh” and “willful, blatant, and persistent attempts to destroy the efficiency and system” of the company. As a self-appointed efficiency expert she is wreaking havoc on the company by firing long-term employees. And, Mr. Martin understands that more changes are in the pipeline. Yet, she appears immune to criticism as the newly appointed special adviser to the president of the firm, a Mr. Fitweiler. When she begins to poke around Mr. Martin’s bailiwick, the mild mannered Mr. Martin uncharacteristically goes vigilante and plots ways to “rub her out.”
I enjoy the story for its masterful humor, of course, but also because Mr. Martin is a follower who takes action. If a criminal, and a bit of a priss, he is still an effective follower. His actions save the firm – in spite of Mr. Fitweiler’s flawed leadership - and Mr. Martin’s records department and life work survives for another day.

"Double, Double (Administrative) Toil and Trouble*"

Posted by jlubans on July 04, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

Update August 12, 2012:
Detroit water department to cut 81% of workers under new proposal is the headline from the August 9, 2013 Detroit Free Press,"With fresh evidence of a bloated bureaucracy in Detroit's Water and Sewerage Department, Mayor Dave Bing and the Detroit Water Board embraced a consultant's plan Wednesday that calls for eliminating four of every five employees over five years.
The department, which has prompted suburban outrage by doubling rates in the past decade for its 4.3 million customers, plans to outsource billing, maintenance and other functions and hopes to save $900 million." The union is adamantly opposed: "It's not possible. They don't have enough people as it is right now," said John Riehl, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 207, which represents hundreds of water workers. "They are just dreaming...."

I often assign, as student reading, C. Northcote Parkinson’s classic essay on bureaucratic growth and behavior. Why, you might wonder, do I want students to read Parkinson?
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Caption 1: Mr. Parkinson (1909 - 1993)
Isn’t his claim that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion” just a bit of Dilbertean fun and frolic, with little relevance to our modern efficient workplace? Well, it wasn’t for Parkinson. His topic and observations were based on fact.
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Caption 2. “For every new foreman or electrical engineer at Portsmouth there had to be two more clerks at Charing Cross.”**
While he used a Wodehousean gentle humor to introduce contrarian ideas, he was definitely onto something. He chose not to get po-faced about it, but beneath the humor there’s no escaping humankind's wasteful peculiarities, especially in the uniquely human realm of paperwork! (Before we get too far along, there is something I call real work; Parkinson’s focus was on administrative work. There is a difference.)
Many of my library management students are often incredulous – finding it hard to believe Parkinson applies to libraries, or government, which is where Parkinson found bountiful evidence of its occurrence. In my administrative career - referred to in Leading from the Middle - the larger the organization, the more likely I would find abundant duplication and redundancy of effort – often encouraged by the administration. Of course, we could justify with certainty the importance of what we did - just like Parkinson’s busy bureaucrats (A, B, C, D, E, F, G, & H) assiduously reworked memoranda drafts. Some of my peer administrators could get lyrical in justifying redundant checks and controls. Finding ourselves in endless meetings and discussion, we’d still exalt discussion over action! The extra time (weeks and months, not hours) and staffing consumed by discussion and administrative controls were off set, (were they not?) by gains in quality. If so, we had scarce evidence to prove it.


An anecdote is told about Parkinson’s wartime experience*** that led him to wonder about administrative layers:
“In a joint army and air force headquarters somewhere in 1944 England, Major Parkinson must oil the administrative wheels of the fight against Nazi Germany. The stream of vital paperwork from on high is more like a flood, perpetually threatening to engulf him. An administrative disaster strikes. The chief of the base goes on leave. His deputy falls sick. The deputy's deputy is called away on urgent business. Parkinson is left to soldier on alone. At that point, an odd thing happens - nothing at all. The paper flood ceases; the war goes on. Parkinson later mused: “There had never been anything to do. We'd just been making work for each other."
In a way this story reminds me of a Latvian student’s reflections about leadership:
“(Where I work we were) led by a … supervisor … (until) she got sick for 6 months. During her absence our department changed a lot: everyone found her/his own place in work mechanism and we worked as team. Before that we only did what our supervisor ordered us to do. We learned how to work without anyone ordering us what to do, we had our own experience in ups and downs; it gave us courage to have our own opinion about things. We all tried to lead and to follow without anyone telling anyone else what to do. For me it was great experience, a school of life :)”
Another reason I re-read Parkinson’s essay was to draft a discussion guide for small student groups when I teach again at the University of Latvia. Here’s my first effort on the Parkinson reading (I'd like to do something like this for each of the readings):
Draft Reading Discussion Worksheet
Parkinson, C. Northcote, Parkinson’s Law. (1955)
http://www.economist.com/node/14116121?story_id=14116121
(n.b. Parkinson writes with humor; however his topic and interpretation is based on fact.)
1. What is your most important “take away” from this reading?
2. What in your personal work and life experience relates to Parkinson’s ideas about work?
3. Was bureaucracy different during “Soviet Times” from today’s democratic structures?
4. Parkinson concludes: “It is not the business of the botanist to eradicate the weeds. Enough for him if he can tell us just how fast they grow.” If you are or want to be a leader what does that statement mean to you?

Notes:
*Macbeth's witches offer cautionary advice for any aspirant to administrative grandeur.
**Translation: Every new worker, doing real work, resulted in the employment of two office workers. Portsmouth Harbour is the UKs naval base; Charing Cross, in London, is the location of the old Admiralty Building & Offices. Charing Cross is in Whitehall, the location for much of UKs bureaucracy. Sometime in the late 60s or early 70s, I visited Whitehall, the Department for Education. I was a brash young American interested in finding out what the Brits were doing policy-wise to teach students about information use. The grey sub-department head - his office was on a polished endless hallway - who saw me mumbled a few words in response to each of my questions. This office holder was not taking any chances with the inquisitive American! Or, perhaps he was desperate to get back to his paperwork! Unlike most Brits - who go out of their way with hospitality - he did not offer me any refreshment. Nor did he express interest in educational trends in the USA.
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Caption: Whitehall sometime in 2010.
***The anecdote is slightly modified from Mark Buchanan’s telling of it in his “Parkinson's law revisited”. New Scientist; 1/10/2009, Vol. 201 Issue 2690, p38-39.