Customer Service Secrets from Trader Joe’s

Posted by jlubans on February 27, 2013  •  Leave comment (0)

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Because of its tight-lipped ways, Trader Joe’s can make for the wrong kind of story, all about the covertness of its German owners. For example, this headline from a 2010 story in Fortune: “Inside the secret world of Trader Joe's
It’s true, TJs managers will not talk about the business side of the business, but the “crew” – as the staff are known - offers just about the best service in the retail grocery business. You’ll have a hard time “getting (TJs) kind of love at the Piggly Wiggly.”
A TJs crewmember interacts with you more like a person than a consumer in an economic equation. TJs staff appear to understand the fundamental truth about retail: if you help people find what they are looking for, and make them feel good in the process, they will spend money in your store AND they will come back. The money from the sales, the profits, then can be used to further enhance the enterprise for staff and customers.
When I called the nearby TJs in Chapel Hill, inquiring about a discontinued item, I was put straight thru to the store’s manager, Greg Forte. I told him about my dismay in the absence of TJs stone-ground Southern Grits. When would the product be back? He expressed surprise and said something like “I love those grits!” But in the time it takes to check a computer inventory, he confirmed the sad news. Both of us commiserated about the situation. However, when I asked him if I could come by and interview him about their excellent customer service, his tone became wary. He’d have to check with headquarters. I offered to write a letter explaining my interest, who I was, and how I worked, but he said no, that’s not necessary. He’d get back to me in a week. Not.
So, as you can see, TJs strength is not in talking about the organization but in doing service better than most other food stores. I had the good fortune to interview Saul Zabar co-owner of Zabar’s, New York’s delightful food shop at 79th and Broadway. Over several months, Saul showed me the business, gave me back office and kitchen tours, allowed me to accompany him more than once on his weekly tasting of hundreds of pounds of smoked salmon at a Zabar’s vendor in Brooklyn, and he gave me full access to a dozen or more staff to ask any question I wanted. It made for an insightful story about the complex world of a retail business. It’s in the book:
Chapter 14: A Zabarian Experience
But, TJs, and its German owners, think differently from Saul – perhaps for their own right reasons. Still, you can derive much about a business by how you are treated. TJs staff have an obvious interest in what the customer thinks. Is this a trained-in empathy? Or, maybe that empathy is in the corporate DNA, an inherited gene from TJs California culture that the new German owners have the smarts not to re-engineer.
Well, just how does an organization establish a uniform friendliness toward its clients? Somehow, TJs staff can be spontaneous and not worry about getting yanked by corporate policy. As much as I like Costco, the staff on the floor invariably avoid eye contact with customers. If the customer makes the effort and asks a question, the response is usually positive, but it’s up to me to take the initiative. Yeah, I know Costco’s "great", but eye contact or a friendly nod is the exception, not the rule. Why is that?
TJs apparent policy is to look people in the eye and ask how to help. Better, the policy seems to say, if you see someone who might need help, you help. You stop re-stocking the shelf and help the customer find what she is looking for. Or, if the store does not have it – most TJs have a limited line of products, e.g. one type of lip balm, no more - you confirm that and express your regrets. You do not leave the customer wandering around (like I have done numerous times at Costco) hoping for serendipity to come to my rescue. When I asked a staffer in TJs dairy area about where a vegetable might be – I’d looked and looked in the produce area - he stopped his inventory of the cheese bins, without a hint of “I’m busy” - and walked me to a shelf in produce. It was the same shelf I had scrutinized. There was the product. He pulled it out and showed it to me. Sale made!
At TJs there’s a detente in the barrier between staff and customer, and there’s no enforced impersonality; apparently it is OK to be yourself. (Much like the individuality permitted staff at SWA.) There’s a much mis-guided concept in too many organizations that staff must present the same face to every customer. Those plastic smiles seem to be saying, “We are impartial, we are fair, we are consistent, just like the robotized “Your call is very important to us.” It’s a different message that the client receives: We may empathize with you, but we know our limits; we know the narrow boundaries of what we can and cannot do; I do not have permission to help you beyond point x, regardless of the national advertising that “if something’s not right we’ll fix it!”
Think back about a great interaction between you and an employee. What happened? I remember thirstily looking for a water fountain at Frankfurt’s vast-desert-of-an-airport. When I asked someone behind the service desk at Lufthansa for the nearest one, she said there were not any water fountains, then left her desk, unlocked a door, went inside, retrieved and gave me a bottle of water! Did I like that?
I was pushing one of TJs tiny grocery carts – with several bottles of wine and olive oil rolling around – when one of the “crew” observed me and made some comment about the party I must be having. Then she asked if I could use a box for the bottles. Actually, she did not ask me, she got the box and put the bottles in it so I could continue do my shopping.
On another visit, I saw a couple staff restocking the shelves. (Consider that this would be an obvious inefficiency to any retail expert. Why not stock only when the store is closed? Imagine the savings from a minimum wage stocking crew that can focus on the job at hand? Instead, TJs re-stocks during the day, while the customer is there. A stocker is a ready target for questions that take him away from his job and add to the retail labor cost. Actually, restocking during the day is a highly efficient way to get staff out on the floor to help people find what they need (or to try something new!).
But back to the re-stocking staffers. A little boy, three or four, imitating two TJ staff, was also re-stocking a bottom shelf. This was fun for the little boy. Work as fun. Imagine that.
It’s remarkable to me that the staff were OK with the little boy’s playful interest instead of telling the parent their insurance does not permit children playing with the merchandise.
I wonder what TJs policy manual looks like? Is it hundreds of pages of detailed direction or is it one page with the simple statement, “Help the customer.” I cannot confirm that, I can only admire how TJs helps their customers (of all ages and economic circumstances*).
The Fortune article concludes that TJs good staff benefits package makes for the good customer relations. I’d say it helps, but good pay is hardly the only reason. It’s in the corporate culture. It’s what is transmitted and demonstrated daily to every staff member. The rules can be bent – what’s the harm in the little boy playing at re-stocking? And, yes, when someone asks for help, you do stop what you are doing and help.
Back in the day of library card catalogs, I recall the controversy over a card filer’s helping a library user find a book. It made perfect sense to me for a user to ask for help from someone who looked like a library worker. Yet there was considerable opposition from some staff. The filer might misguide the user! The filer’s job was to file not to assist, etc. All this was nonsense. A type of nonsense that the TJs organization has overcome in its expectations of each crewmember to help people to the best of their ability. If the Chapel Hill manager agrees to an interview I’d love to pass on something more substantial about TJs than my best guesses.

*However TJs customer base is largely white. Perhaps curiously, the Durham (where I live) Aldi store (owned by the same German family but run in an altogether different fashion) has a fair number of black customers.

Friday Fable: La Fontaine’s “The Dove and the Ant.”*

Posted by jlubans on February 22, 2013  •  Leave comment (0)

“A dove came to a brook to drink,
When, leaning o'er its crumbling brink,
An ant fell in, and vainly tried,
In this, to her, an ocean tide,
To reach the land; whereat the dove,
With every living thing in love,
Was prompt a spire of grass to throw her,
By which the ant regain'd the shore.
A barefoot scamp, both mean and sly,
Soon after chanced this dove to spy;
And, being arm'd with bow and arrow,
The hungry codger doubted not
The bird of Venus, in his pot,
Would make a soup before the morrow.
Just as his deadly bow he drew,
Our ant just bit his heel.
Roused by the villain's squeal,
The dove took timely hint, and flew
Far from the rascal's coop;--
And with her flew his soup.”

A good friend commented wryly on my recent post about staff having the freedom to help people regardless of the rules. But, in some organizations, he said “No good deed goes unpunished.” Here the dove’s good deed saves her life. In some organizations, nameless of course, there is another prevailing condition: “No bad deed goes unrewarded.”

I think his meaning in no good deed going unpunished was in the context of a workplace in which a staff member goes out of her way to help someone; she may have to cross (horrors!) departmental lines or to take some extra time away from an assigned duty. And, in helping the client is then criticized by a supervisor for exceeding her authority. To those who say this is insubordination, a dereliction of duty, harrumph(!), etc., I would say, with an atrocious French accent, Au contraire, mon ami! Rather, this is doing what it takes to help the client and it should be what workers everywhere have the freedom to do. My apoplectic supervisor responds, “But what you blithely suggest could mean someone's deserting their station, or someone's spending precious time away from more important work! Worse, it is unfair to those clients we serve poorly. Oops, delete that!"

What was more important work for the dove? The truth be told, offering unstinting help to people in need, means a greatly expanding pool of clients who will not forget the favors done nor their source. If the staff member errs, that’s not a world-ender. An apology will go a long way when the worker means to help not to harm.
And, overzealousness, as some might fear, will have its own restraint of time and energy and other work awaiting.

I like this fable’s picture so much, here it is large:
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Caption: THE DOVE AND THE ANT by the artist
MRS ARTHUR BROOKFIELD (!) in AESOP'S FABLES FOR LITTLE READERS, LONDON: T FISHER UNWIN, [1888], PAGE 20


*Source: "A Hundred Fables of La Fontaine" by Jean de La Fontaine, London; New York: John Lane Co., 1900



Drawing the Democratic Workplace

Posted by jlubans on February 20, 2013  •  Leave comment (1)

On my second day of teaching in Riga at the University of Latvia I asked the students to draw the Democratic Workplace. My question to them was “What comes to mind when you hear Democratic Workplace(DW)? What does it look like?”
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My purpose was two-fold. One was for students to conceptualize - as best they could this early in the class – what the DW might mean. My other purpose was for each student to share her drawing with the class to heighten learning and to help the students get to know each other.
So, I set out paper and crayons and they went to it. Of the 15 drawings (two students were absent) a third included a rendering of a house, a home. Usually flowers and trees surrounded the house, with smoke curling out of the chimney and the sun shining brightly overhead. Here are two examples:
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The students explained that the house metaphor stands for a welcoming environment, a place of abundant happiness, a place to share ideas and, obviously a place where one finds support, like in a family. Family or “Ģimene” - also a word for “household” – is very important to many Latvians, a private sort of people. Most holidays are spent with extended family and often in the country. People go to the country not just to get away with family, but also to reconnect with nature. Latvian mythology includes deities like Māra - Mother Nature - and Jānis, of the multi-day celebration of Jāņi, the summer solstice, with its feasting, bonfire-leaping, dancing and singing of folksongs.

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And, as my Riga cousin told me, “Latvians are slightly crazy about flowers” with a flower shop just about on every block:
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Well, with this emphasis on the home, is the DW then a paternalistic arrangement? Maybe elsewhere but not in Latvia. Females are, shall we say, more equal partners with males than in other cultures. My evidence is a 2006 study that found that “about 41% of managers in
Latvia were female: ‘the highest proportion of women managers anywhere in the European Union.’ Latvia’s numbers exceeded those for Sweden, Ireland and Germany by 9, 11, and 14 percent, respectively.”
So, in Latvia, one might conclude, the home is likely more of an equal place, with shared leadership between the mother and the father, than it might be elsewhere.
Understandably, several students pointed out that equality is an essential quality of the DW. There may be a leader, but workers’ opinions and ideas are relevant and respected.

A more abstract drawing shows different levels in the organization and extensive communication among the workers in each level, and strong communication among the levels.
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Information is shared, and, while hierarchical there does not appear to be a dominant leader.
And, a detailed rendering of what the DW office looks like includes home-like details: a kitchen for sharing and communication and a room for getting away from it all. This last was inspired in part, I believe, by an assigned reading for that day, Jerry Campbell’s, “At Least Once Ride a Wild Horse into the Sun.”*

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I’d be delighted to get your interpretation of these drawings. And, I’d enjoy hearing what your DW drawing would feature! Please e-mail me or use the comment function.

* Campbell, Jerry D., “Management Style: At Least Once Ride a Wild Horse into the Sun,” North Carolina Libraries, pp. 234-238, Winter, 1989.

Friday’s Fable: Aesop’s “THE BEETLE IN THE AIR”*

Posted by jlubans on February 15, 2013  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: Keep on rollin’
“There was a beetle who came forth fully sated from his dung heap and saw an eagle flying high up in the air, crossing a great stretch of the sky in a brief stretch of time. The beetle then felt contempt for his own way of life and declared to his fellow beetles, 'Look at that eagle, who is so swift on the wing and so strongly built, equipped with such a savage beak and talons! If she wants, she can soar up to the clouds and plunge downwards as fast as she likes. Meanwhile, we beetles suffer from a sorry state of affairs, being not quite bugs and not quite birds. But my voice is no less pleasant than the eagle's cry, and her sheen does not outshine my own. I will not crawl around in the dung any more! From now on I will consort with the birds and fly around with them everywhere, joining their society!' The beetle then rose into the sky, emitting a song that was nothing more than a loathsome sort of buzzing. As he tried to follow the eagle into the upper air, he was unable to endure the strong winds. He fell to the ground, shaken and exhausted, far away from his home. Facing starvation, the sad beetle said, 'I don't care if they call me a bug or a bird, if only I can get back home to my dung heap!' 
Disaster awaits the arrogant person who puts on airs: he will fail to get promoted and will lose his former position as well.”

The concluding moral evokes, for me, the vainly envious worker who wants a higher job in spite of a lack of experience or qualifications. There’s no question he’d be in over his head, but that does not get in the way of his ambition: “The eagle (the leader) has all the perks, why not me?”
I recall in my study of a woman’s basketball team (Chapter 8)
that one of the players – who was not happy with “riding the pine” as a sub - left the program to go to another team. There she was promised a starring role; no more waiting on the bench! Alas, her inconsistent play – flashes of brilliance followed by stretches of mishandling the ball – got worse due to the extra stress of being a starter/leader.
Yet, there’s something to be said about climbing out of a seeming “dung-heap” to higher levels, to taking a chance, to betting on your own success.
Or, we may choose a prestigious job that pays well but offers few challenges. It’s routine and comfortable, but, to our dismay, the organization likes the status quo: routine and comfortable! And, it resents being reminded about its shortcomings. Let’s hope, like the beetle, when we fall back to earth, to reality, we’re wiser for when the next opportunity comes knocking.

*Source: Aesop's Fables. A new translation by Laura Gibbs. Oxford University Press (World's Classics): Oxford, 2002.

What’s Fair?

Posted by jlubans on February 13, 2013  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: Amphora depicting three long-distance runners.

A few months back there was a story in the Spanish newspaper El Pais, with the sub-title: “Vitoria-based athlete Iván Fernández Anaya refused to take advantage when his rival stopped short of the finishing line in a cross-country race.”
In brief, Mr. Anaya’s opponent , the Kenyan Abel Mutai , was well ahead near the finish of the race. Coming into the finish gate, he slowed down to a near stop, possibly confused by the finish line arrangement. Anaya, a distant second, drew up on the leader and noted his confusion. But, instead of brushing past and winning, Anaya helped Matai – through words and gestures – cross the finish line and claim his win. For many in the media this was a “man bites dog” story, attracting comments and observations from all over. Most adopted the view that we need more of what Anaya did. However, Anaya’s coach was not happy with his runner’s decision: "The gesture has made him a better person but not a better athlete. He has wasted an occasion. Winning always makes you more of an athlete. You have to go out to win."
While the coach was dismayed, Mr. Anaya was not. He did what he thought was fair. Now, to me, that is the point. One person deciding it would be unfair to take advantage of another. In spite of the negatives that dominate the media, humans possess a quintessential sense of fairness and kindness. That belief in fairness differentiates the vast majority from a minority of coeval cave man survivors, ones who will go to any extreme to win, to be top dog - with apologies to Apollonian canines everywhere. Sticking with the sports metaphor, this atavism (and its ready reciprocation) is on display in the jabbing, slashing , spiking, tripping, and bumping that go on during the bunched starts of many European track races.

Centuries ago, Adam Smith* alluded to what he saw as man’s instinctual sympathy:
“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.”
Smith drew his conclusions from everyday occurrences, like when I hold a door to let another person pass through or when someone stops to offer sympathy to a crying child. Of course, there is nothing absolute about humans nor was it ever Smith’s intention (as many too often presume) to suggest there was. I’ve seen numerous acts of boorishness, outright rudeness – even cruelty - in which selfishness dominates, like littering or not giving way on the sidewalk or highway or stealing a mobile phone. Some days the milk of human kindness flows like tree-sap in springtime and other times, the well of compassion is bone-dry.

Anya's decision to do what's fair reminded me of my previous essay on the women’s softball team in which the opposing team carried an injured player around the bases.
There was a similar reaction to that story: incredulity, since winning is all-important. Yet, there came unstinted applause from most quarters because of the “fairness” of what those players did.
Playing to an opponent’s weakness has little to do with fairness or what’s right or wrong. Instead, that’s the tactical, thinking side of sport. When I ran track, I’d go out and run like hell from start to finish. Some strategy! I never much liked it when someone in the back kicked past me as my leaden legs froze up. Still, I admire greatly the required discipline to run in third or fourth place, hold back some energy and then kick to the win. As a spectator, I’m on my feet cheering the guy on.
What I call the “thinking runner” is usually not the guy that jabs his elbow, in passing, into an opponent’s ribs – that’s done to gain an unfair advantage. That happened to me in a prep-school cross-country run through fields and forests in western Massachusetts. Walter Mitty-like I replay that event and sprint after the miscreant (probably now a Fortune 500 CEO or B. Madoff’s cell mate) and, à la Clint Eastwood, knock the bastard down and give him a couple juicy ones to the face. No doubt, I’d be ejected for unsportsmanlike conduct. Yet, my fantasy is largely congruent with the ire most of us feel when we encounter unfairness.

This week, the students in my Democratic Workplace class are reading a survey article about human fairness. According to evolutionary theorists and researchers it is our inherent belief in what’s fair that has helped us evolve and survive. It is “the legacy of our long nomadic prehistory as tightly knit bands living by veldt-ready team-building rules: the belief in fairness and reciprocity, a capacity for empathy and impulse control, and a willingness to work cooperatively in ways that even our smartest primate kin cannot match.”
When we discuss that reading I’d like for the students to think about human cooperation and organizational structures. What kind of structure is more in keeping with our inclinations toward fairness and kindness?

* Knud Haakonssen edited one of many editions of Adam Smith’s 1759 work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, in 2002 for Cambridge University Press.

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “THE SNAKE AND THE WASP”*

Posted by jlubans on February 08, 2013  •  Leave comment (0)

“A wasp landed on the head of a snake and began to harass him, stinging him again and again. As he was suffering from terrible pain but couldn't get rid of his enemy, the snake crawled into the road and looked for an oncoming wagon. He then put his head under the wheel as he said, 'I die together with my enemy!' 
This is a fable for people who share their troubles with their enemies.”

Dying with your enemy seems extreme; is there not an alternative step to avoid this Lose/Lose outcome?
Since Aesop’s animals can talk, the snake should find out what’s bugging the wasp, what is the source of the conflict? It’s doubtful the wasp is after the snake as food – there’s some other reason for it to afflict so much suffering on a fellow creature. So, identify the grievance. If some concession or compromise can be made, then make it. Alternatively, instead of the snake crawling into traffic he could look for water, dive in and be rid of the wasp.
Now that’s all easily said. Advice giving is vastly different from advice taking! I worked in an academic setting for many years. Among the faculty there were legendary feuds, some never resolved until the death or departure of the combatants – indeed, they died with their enemy. And, I’ve seen departmental faculty who do not talk to each other, ever, because of some philosophical difference. Not exactly dying with your enemy, more a mutual suffering. And, I’ve seen the two enemy camps waste creative effort in trying to enlist support through complaining ad naseum to any one trapped into listening. I have to admit we in the library have our own versions of petty, hardly irreconcilable, conflict. Those spiteful jealousies and that lack of trust are detrimental to the institution. Our service and production suffer, decisions are avoided or delayed, and resources are not well used. Nor are readers as well served as they might be.
So, to take my advice for the snake and the wasp, why, in my time, did we not address it? Why did I not approach the opposition and open the discussion about what’s going on and how can we get past it? I think it would have been easy to do, if only we had done it!

*Source: Aesop's Fables. A new translation by Laura Gibbs. Oxford University Press (World's Classics): Oxford, 2002.

“Those are the rules.”

Posted by jlubans on February 06, 2013  •  Leave comment (2)

A funny thing happened on the way to the Faculty where I am to teach while in Riga. My wife and I got on the number # 3 trolley bus at the stop just outside the door to our apartment. It was our first bus ride since landing in Riga a few days ago. I had four bus cards with rides still remaining from our last visit. I used one and it came up “invalid” in Latvian. I used another and it too came up empty. About then two "Rīgas satiksmes" (Riga traffic) agents sidled up and said, sotto voce, it was verboten to use old bus cards. We were escorted off at the next stop and fined! One guard spoke English and so we tried to appeal to him that we were not “fare-dodgers”. He made a wry face and shrugged his shoulders in mild sympathy, “Those are the rules.”
We took the next bus – the “kvīts” or receipt for the fine permits one to travel for 30 minutes on the bus – and made our way to the Faculty building.
The incident brought to mind multiple examples of how bureaucracies can become bureaucratic – insensitive to the client, indeed, unable to assist the client. This often happens when orders from above result in rigid application of one policy to all situations regardless of circumstances. Why don’t the bus police have some discretion in doing their main job to stop the regular cheaters? What would happen if they had some latitude of interpretation?

A similar thing happened awhile back on a train from Bologna to Milan. The conductor looked at my fully paid ticket and said I had failed to validate it – whatever that meant - in the Bologna train station. Of course the sign that says you must do so is in Italian. I had to pay a hefty fine. Again, it was a simple oversight, an understandable mistake made by a first time foreign visitor.
In this instance, I did feel that the Italian conductor was overly zealous and derived not a little bit of pleasure from the power he had over me, an American. In Riga, I felt like at least one of the bus police was embarrassed by the episode and would have let us totter off with no more than a warning. But, I suspect, the bus police had no discretion to do otherwise and his partner seemed a hard case, like the officious Italian. “They must pay!” she hissed to her partner. We had attempted to defraud the state, had we not!?

Back in the USA my wife had a couple recent encounters with the Rule of Law in the public library. One was when she forgot her library card but wanted to borrow a book. The clerk knew her, knew her to be a regular patron – she borrows one hundred or more books a year, is religious about returning books on time, always responds to call-in notices, (for crying out loud she's a LIBRARIAN), etc – but, regardless, the clerk said “no ticket, no laundry” or something to that effect. Making a bad situation worse, the clerk deliberately took the book and put it behind the desk as if my wife might pull a grab and run. Imagine that – hordes of readers looting the library’s collection! Would that be a sign of success or failure? So, what is the purpose of the library and what was the purpose of the clerk in preventing my wife’s taking out a book? What was behind this behavior? I’ll bet it was more than a bad hair day. “Those are the rules,” after all.

Merton’s essay* on “bureaucratic structure and personality” is an assigned reading in my management class. Merton explains why and how bureaucrats – office workers in public enterprises - can become mean, stingy and heartless and lose any semblance of trying to help people; in essence, conspire to frustrate clients
Merton cites an absurd interpretation of the USA naturalization rules as applied to a Norwegian residing in the USA. Back then a foreigner, who wanted to become a citizen, had to reside in the USA continuously for five years. The man was Bernt Balchen, Admiral Byrd's pilot in the flight over the South Pole. When he put in for this citizenship, it was denied because he had left the USA and gone to the South Pole. It did not matter to the naturalization official that Mr. Balchnen had served heroically on an American boat and the expedition base was named Little America and flew the American flag. “Those are the rules.” What, you may wonder, was accomplished by this literal interpretation of the so-called rules?
You, the reader, may be thinking this bit of Kafka cannot happen in your shop, no way. I hope so. It is a central tenet of the leading from the middle concept that when staff is free to make decisions that set things right, doing so avoids the many unintended consequences - the pitfalls, traps and snares - of administrative policy. When intelligent and well-educated workers are expected to do what is right, that’s what they do and feel good in doing so. If they err, so be it, as long as that error “leans toward the customer”. If, on the other hand, you (the immediate supervisor, the upper administration, the boss) tie the staff’s hands or ham string them with production quotas, they will do only what the letter of the law - as written or stated by the boss - demands. A staff’s unquestioningly carrying out orders makes an organization look inhumane and unintelligent. It is unimaginable to think that this pathological behavior will not incrementally embitter and harden even the best worker, unless, of course, she finds a better job. Nor will that worker ever be on the lookout for ways to improve the organization.

*Merton, Robert K. “Bureaucratic structure and personality,” in Shafritz and Hyde, editors, Classics of Public Administration, pp.53-62. Merton’s first wrote on this topic in 1940 with an article in the magazine, Social Forces, v. 18.

Friday Fable. A Latvian Daina, “Fields Full of Landlords”*

Posted by jlubans on February 01, 2013  •  Leave comment (1)

Since I am in Riga as a Visiting Professor at the University of Latvia, I thought this song might be a good stand-in for Mr. Aesop.
This daina is one of a few hundred thousand, sung by Latvians at harvests, banquets, the summer solstice (Jani), and in any family gathering, including my own. The Latvian daina defines the country, its people and its boundaries.

I like this one for its humor and what it has to say about the person in the middle, caught between a “rock and a hard place.” For Latvia and the other Baltic countries there have always been other nations evangelizing (and invading) us about a better way (theirs!). Spare us, please.

“Oh God, where to take refuge,
The woods are full of wolves
/and/ bears,
The woods are full of wolves
/and/ bears,
The fields are full of land-
lords!”

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Caption: The Illustrious K. Barons

*Source: Krišjānis Barons (1835 -1923), compiler Latvju Dainas/Latvian Folksongs (“Favorites” in English, Russian, German & Latvian.) Riga, Latvia: Writers Union of Soviet Latvia. 1984.