Tom Sawyer’s Fence

Posted by jlubans on June 08, 2020


A while back there was a story on how the state of Utah was re-assigning 250 state workers to help in tracing those exposed to the virus.
Why did I notice?
Because this was a “man bites dog” story. Every other state is saying how they need, urgently, to hire thousands of tracers and is in dire need of supplemental funding in the millions of dollars.
None but Utah mention deploying existing state workers to help trace. Why? A pertinent question since thousands of state workers are on paid furlough.
Yesterday’s (June 6) story about the situation said nothing, again, about deploying existing resources but only about having to find and pay for one or two hundred thousand contract workers!
What is it about an organization that gets in the way of one department helping another?
I was in one organization where we put out an “all hands on deck” call to deal with a large backlog. It was obvious to everyone – I thought - yet the response was reluctant and minimal.
While I felt the urgency few others appeared to. The tacit consensus from most was to: ”Let George do it”. In other words, somebody else should do it. They (other departments) were too busy to help out.
What could I have done differently?
How did Tom Sawyer get his chums to paint his aunt’s picket fence? (White-washing the fence was his punishment for sneaking out of the house.) How did he convince his cohorts to pitch in while he supervised?
Mark Twain explains: “If (Tom) had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”
“(Tom) had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it—namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.”
Surely there are lessons in Tom Sawyer that could be applied to the well-known inability of organizations to shift gears, to move people into another role without resistance but with energy and a can-do spirit.
I’ve also seen how some departments had units that would help internal units, but never offer aid to anyone outside their department.
That said, I have seen organizations with just the opposite culture. The spirit of helping out was in the air when I wrote about Oregon’s Department of Motor Vehicles. This agency job shares all the time and staff are encouraged to fill in at other locations when those DMVs are short of staff. It is expected and normal to help out.
Long ago, one of my professors gave our Systems Analysis class a tour of the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance. He took us into a cavernous space with hundreds of desks in perfect rows, as far as the eye could see - an all too real caricature of a bureaucracy. I noticed that most of the seated workers were reading books. (Nowadays, they’d be internet surfing.)
From a book lover’s perspective, that was great! From a taxpayer’s, less so. When I inquired about this, our professor said that the staff was reading books because it was past tax season.
They had no real work to do.
Yet, it was taboo to talk about moving idle workers to areas in need of help.
People want real work to do, meaningful work.
Leaders at all levels could make a huge difference by facilitating and protecting managers and staff who want to collaborate with other agencies, who want to help out where needs are greater. There should be flexibility in every organization to assure every individual has real work to do.
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© Copyright John Lubans 2020

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