Sunday, February 27, 2011

Deming's First Principle, the Red Light District and Management Truths

As I have often noted in the pages of this blog, I am the Dutch interface of the organization. (I have also voiced this same opinion in the now famed The Best Seller - which as of today ranks in Amazon as one of the leading Financial Crisis Best Sellers).

At least that was the intention with which I was hired - to provide the Indian firm a local liaison while dealing with the Dutch bankers, as well as an internal window with an excellent view into the culture and traditions of life in Netherlands. Ever since joining, however, I have been preparing dashboards and reports by the celebrated EOD, seldom venturing beyond a smile and a handshake with the important Dutch clients. And in spite of the new insights into the culture I have supposedly brought in, the company continues to prepare new employees from India for the surprises of Holland with the same seven slide power point presentation crammed with windmills, clogs, cycles, canals and tulips.

Well, one reason for this apparent discord between intent and eventuality can be detected in the perennially increasing number of status reports that always seem to be in demand accentuated with the self delusional refusal to acknowledge the need of hiring additional people.

For managers, Status Reports seem to be the be all and end all of management. The other day I ran into an Indian professional visiting Amsterdam on business who lamented, “Will the speed of the Earth ever change if we appoint somebody to monitor it and give regular status updates? ... Now who will explain that to the corporate managers, his managers and his up-lines?” Mr. Suman Dasgupta, if only we had more people with your worldly wisdom.

Once or twice, during the bilateral sessions with my line manager, I have brought this up, but my arguments have been brushed aside with a carefree wave of high positioned hand, softened by a smile of assurance.
“Simon, the Dutch speak very good English and we don’t feel your language skills are required in our interactions. But, we appreciate your suggestions and will look for opportunities to use your expertise. Right now, your presence itself is an asset – and we really need those reports you are preparing. You are good at it."

Well, if I continue to analyse the events leading to my joining the firm, I detect yet another reason for this strange derailment of my role. The manager who had conducted my interview and had processed the hiring formalities had been relocated to Zurich within a week of my joining. The Dutch connection related to my hiring had probably left the country with him. It demonstrates a definite lack of constancy of purpose in the management, in direct conflict with the first principle of Dr. Edward Deming. And in this industry that totters and survives by banking on knee jerk reactions, this principle is often kicked away with ignorant disdain.

Let me illustrate this with the point made by the Line Manager. The Dutch clients speak decent English, and hence the Indians can carry on the business without undesirable hiccups.

First of all, I don’t subscribe to this line of reasoning.  Not all the people working in the bank are that comfortable with English, especially some of the important people who are in their fifties.Even a stuttering dialogue in their mother tongue will definitely go a long way towards winning their heart and thereby encroaching into their pockets. If not the entire workforce of the firm working in the Netherlands, the few super important people known as the account managers, who are entrusted with growing business, would be much better off by working their way to simple Dutch, even mastering a pidgin variety.  However, I witness none of these eminent employees garnering the time or inclination to pick up even a few basic sentences of the language.

If I contrast this with the oldest profession, there are some striking contrasts. Girls from Bosnia, Slovenia, Chile, Thailand and other exotic and remote places who carry on their variety of body-shopping in the Red Light District of Amsterdam become reasonably fluent in Dutch and English within a very few days. Granted, they have the advantage of Dutch fluids passing into them for every successful business transaction, but looking at it with some twists and turns of angles, the account managers do come just as close to the local Nether-lands during their negotiations.

At the same time, in the time honoured traditions of the industry manure, apart from growing the account, it is the responsibility of the high and mighty members of the local branch of the company to come up with visionary strategy and innovations to enable smarter business with value-adds. While growth is taken care of by cramming in more people at cheaper rates, vintage old wine in jargon cloaked new bottles generally make up the innovative suggestions for improving synergy and continuous improvement. With headquarters in a country that considers bull-shit to be sacred, this ideas generated often constitute an omnibus of corporate crap. During the process, however, someone did point out the necessity of developing Dutch language skills to communicate with the clients. And this is where Deming was stopped ruthlessly in the middle of his first of fourteen principles.

The language development suggestion was indeed taken up as a management goal by the decision makes back home. A defining moment when Deming would have smiled if the purpose had been written down in large letters as follows – EFFECTIVE DUTCH COMMUNICATION SKILLS FOR EMPLOYEES IN AMSTERDAM.

However, when this was passed as a directive to the regional manager in Amsterdam, and he made a new version of the goal – People need to be trained in Dutch, but I can only spare a ridiculously small amount of money for this curious whim of powers that be. Let us call this Purpose version 2.

The ball was passed to the Academy department in Continental Europe, who promptly framed their version of the purpose as – Dutch Language Certifications needed for 20 employees this quarter with the approved budget which is an atrociously stingy budget. Purpose version 3.
Hence, the next step for the Academy was to find out a suitably cheap institute who would teach 20 people at this atrociously small amount – with the added caveat of generating certifications within 3 months. Most of the prominent language schools laughed off the suggestion in the traditional straightforward Dutch way that the Windmill and Clog oriented Academy personnel had been entirely unprepared for. Finally, they zeroed in on a seedy outfit with little or no proven track record, who haggled and asked for more if they were to go with the sham. Hence, the Academy racked their brains to come up with a multiple brownie point winning innovation. The reimbursement rule was modified. The company would now pay 80% of the course including the cost of the books.

A mailer was thus drafted, announcing Dutch lessons for a very economic price which would be largely reimbursed by the Academy Department. Seats were limited, so could managers nominate people as fast as possible?  The mailer was distributed across mailboxes of managers in various accounts of Amsterdam and Utrecht, with graphics and passionate vision statements hinting at commitment to relentless quest of business enhancing knowledge.

The managers had also received the directive which designated Dutch language skill development of their resources as one of their Key Responsibility Areas. They rushed to fill in the seats with the employees reporting to them before seats ran out.
However, who could they spare for two evenings every week? With programs to be written and dashboards to be painted green with metronomic regularity? They handpicked some of the not so important reportees, mostly junior programmers with minimum interaction with the client, many of whom were not fully utilised, on the verge of going back to India. Their goal? Try to send as many guys for the training from my group as possible while not impacting business because of these peculiar directives from some senior manager sitting far far away. Purpose version 4.

Now what about the blokes who were nominated? Most of them would rather spend the evenings sipping beer in a bar, walking along the windows decorated with girls from Bosnia, Slovenia, Chile and Thailand in the Red Light District, a few engaging their services, while a lot would rather be sitting at home surfing porn. Most of them, with an exception here and there, had absolutely no intention of learning a language which was not spoken anywhere outside the Netherlands and some weird places like Surinam and Aruba. Their goal? Try to stay awake and attend just the requisite number of classes to ensure that the certificate is not withheld.  Besides, put the Dutch diploma in the year end appraisal form to gain some brownie points. Purpose version 5. The efficient Academy had already ensured that an exit test was not required for the diploma.

Well, in the end, twenty guys attended two classes a week for three months and nineteen of them got the certificates.

Academy proudly announced that they had met 95% of their goal by making 19 people trained in Dutch Language skills.

 The Project Managers could now balance their goals by toting up the number of diplomas won by their respective lionhearted reportees.

The unfortunate attendees, ears ringing with the intricacies of the guttural Dutch g, could now fill their appraisal sheets, proudly showcasing screenshots of their diplomas.

The Regional Manager came to know that 19 people had been trained in Dutch, and patted himself on the back for his enforcement skills which would probably go miles in developing the Netherlands business centre.

The Senior Management sat back in their offshore offices with relaxed smiles, looking proudly at the announcement bearing mail  that popped up, amazed at their own vision and foresight at making this happen. They were the trailblazing innovators who could turn the fortunes of the company and the industry yardsticks on their heads with supreme thought leadership from thousands of miles away. They would soon be visiting the Dutch-land to admire the outcome of their landmark brainchild.

Knowledge of Dutch would soon enter the portfolio of capabilities advertised by the company, the appropriate description of the same changing from 'rudimentary' to 'excellent' in the course of review and approval cycle.

A sizeable representative sample of the nineteen, however, were equally at sea when I asked them, “Hoe gaat het?” or “Hoe is je Nederlands?”

So, obviously the question is what will happen when new customers are swayed into engaging our services based on our excellent Dutch communication skills?

Well, as far as I see it, someone like me will be recruited ASAP ... By the time the new person would join the firm, the customer focus would change rapidly, with visionary synergies quickly traded for penny cringing and fire fighting. Hence, I will soon have a Dutch colleague filling up reports and creating dashboards.

W. Edward Deming talked of his 14 principles and lent his name to the Plan Do Check Act cycle. But the industry has succeeded in tackling him right at the first principle, endorsing its versatility by ignoring the tenet of constancy of purpose, and has created its own vicious cycle.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Schopenhauer and Vedanta to explain Meetings and Innovation

Our company is back to doing excellent business now that the credit crisis has blown itself away. By that I mean it is again stepping back into the excellent mode of plugging in manpower at the lowest of low costs to take over the most mundane of client activities. And hence it is that period of time when one can hardly open one’s mailbox without being hit between the hapless eyes by mailers of numerous nasty innovative initiatives.

From the HR, to the administration, to the COE groups pathologically steeped in collective Narcissism, everyone is expected to bring in often Quixotic measures that squander hefty amounts in the name of instant innovation. As Plato had observed even in those ancient days, “Most changes arise from abundance, from an accumulation of wealth which makes dangerous experiments possible.

All this could have passed me by as the idle wind which bothers me not, but for the compulsion of the Senior Managers and Vice Presidents to come galloping in to the various locations and try to mould a motivating dough by sprinkling news-nuggets of innovation-initiatives over the time which lies heavy on their exalted hands.  These lead to meetings, meetings and more meetings, mandatory presence required, making the process of earning one’s daily bread more painful than one cares it to be.

Luckily, I have countered this into an answer to the age old question of finding time to stand and stare. Meetings are those periods which, with a suitably modified  point of view, can be retrofitted into a gift of time. A hour or two to do the much needed thinking that is increasingly difficult as life rushes us by in the modern manic speed.  It is a forum that can be tweaked as meditation, where the sole distraction is the painful inanity mouthed by the ridiculously high-positioned imbeciles who herd us in to the conference room. And using a technique taught by master Subramanium, I can get over the painful discomfort by concentrating on the very words of the speaker as if they are some ritualistic, repeated mantra for the mind to rest -  as indeed, thinking about it from some angles, they indeed are.

Subramanium is a master of tai chi, karate and yoga. And while my formal lessons with him have always been exhilarating sessions of tai chi chuan, time and again, he has passed on some excellent concepts of yoga.  There are people, many of them like me heralding from the Western way of life, who find it difficult to assume the sitting posture needed for Indian yogic meditation.  Whether cross legged in the lotus position or folded knees in the diamond or thunderbolt form, there is often painful discomfort which tend to get in the way of the calm mind. And this is where Subramanium taught me the method of concentrating on the pain to make it bearable, and also thus transforming it into a mind calming technique.

Today, the Senior Manager waxed eloquent on the numbers that showed growth in productivity like never before –  making him bullish about the future. He displayed some excellent charts and graphs on the whiteboard, beamed in by divine light of the overhead projector. All the figures had been accumulated by the new cutting edge tool – a novel landmark in the innovation culture of the organisation – which almost sniffed out the effort and output figures of the employees as they went about their daily job. This sort of tool made us the pioneers of thought-leadership, the forerunners among idea mongers who would eventually rewrite the industrial history in near future and lend a new proactive twist to the global thought-scape  with their futuristic brainwaves ... Well, judging by the extenuating excrement that was the man’s speech,  I had no doubt that he was indeed feeling bullish.

Well, a couple of weeks back, the team got the innovative shock that it had to install this cutting edge tool and fill up the time recording system before the proverbial Friday EOD. The catch was that the tool was a monstrous patchwork created in tearing hurry for the comfort feel of layers and layers of senior, regular and assistant managers, coded by a bunch of fresh, green, disinterested out of college developers eager to get away to the multiplex and disco bar, who were nevertheless the only ones cheap enough to indulge in unbilled in-house work.  As a result, it could not be installed on any machine without bringing notebooks, desktops and sometimes entire networks to a coma. If by heaven’s grace they managed to pop up as an executable icon on a fortunate machine, it refused to run - often necessitating the age old remedy of Ctrl, Alt and Del to enable normal services to resume reluctantly.

So, it was the time for quick workarounds, something our firm genuinely excels at. An office application was created in a hurry which directly plugged the data into the backend database of the tool. A spreadsheet was hastily drawn up which stated how many hours each employee had worked in the past month. This file contained ideal data, created in a secluded cubicle in an IT Park of Bangalore, with no input from or connection to what was actually being done in faraway Amsterdam.  All the employees shared their network password to an unfortunate soul who had drawn the short straw and was to spend a full day typing in the figures for everyone to ensure individual data ended up being submitted. Several security policies of the company were carelessly ignored and rampantly trampled upon, but the data was in place, showed improvement, made the senior manager bullish, and now was being presented to us as a remarkable demonstration of innovation.

 Painful, if you see through the facade. Our innovative attempt at confabulated crap thrown back at us as processed nuggets of senior management bull shit. Yet, by concentrating on this pain, I gained many insights that are possible only through contemplation and meditation.

The Senior Manager worked following the principles of Schopenhauer. The World for him was nothing but Will and Representation.  Reality was but a series of perceptions. These perceptions were not borrowed from the results of experience, but, au contraire, reality as represented depended on the will or desire or wishful thinking of the great man. The representation was the mental image of reality that he liked to believe in and had convinced himself of. Having reached that level of satori when the duality between truth and lies become fuzzy and non-existent.

The great Schopenhauer acknowledged the ancient Indian wisdom which called it Maya, the veil of deception which covers the eyes of the mortals, and causes them to see a world of which one cannot say either that it is or that it is not. It is like a dream, like the sunshine on the sand which the traveller from a distance takes to be water.

Schopenhauer does warn that if in the representation of perception illusion distorts reality, then the abstract error can reign for thousands of years, impose its iron yoke on nations, stifle the noblest impulses of mankind, through its slaves and dupes it can enchain even the man it cannot deceive. Replacing nation by industry and thousand by the short term corporate equivalent of ten, five or even one, we shudder at the resonance with which the words ring true in the cubicular world.

The wisdom of this great eighteenth century philosopher makes itself evident in the warped world of corporate existence full of Senior Management meetings in many other ways.
While these may be the subject of future blogs, I would like to leave the readers with a few striking thoughts.

Once my meditations ended with the ritual dance of meetings coming to an end (the shimmer of complying laughter, the rhythmic nods, the combined burst of laughter, the same earmarked virtuoso dancers getting into step, raising their hands, mouthing their stereotypical questions – and then the final words, the smiles in unison, the synchronised rise from the seats, the shake of important and privileged hands and then the departure followed by harmonious relaxation of postures)  I looked up some of the works of the thinker.

So many of them make sense when thought of in context of the Senior Manager.

“It is difficult to keep quiet if you have nothing to do”
“The more unintelligent a man is, the less mysterious existence (operations) seem to him”
“Will minus intellect constitutes vulgarity.”

And finally, I wonder how farsighted must have been a man to have penned this line without having had to endure any one of the Innovation Pandering Corporate Meetings

“Life swings like a pendulum backward and forward between pain and boredom”

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Looking at Corpocracy with Eyes Wide Shut

My famed buddy, with his convoluted consulting techniques, had introduced me to the parallel between classic movies and the corporate world. His idea of a corporate presentation on teamwork, as now famously documented in The Best Seller, was to screen the episode What goes on in the Body during an Orgasm from Woody Allen’s Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex.

A few days back, as I watched Blow Up, the 60s classic movie by Michelangelo Antonioni, I was moved enough by the eerie similarity of the superficial swinging sixties and our office world to write a full fledged blog post on it. As noted in it, when consulted, my buddy responded saying that it was almost always classic cinema or multiple x-rated ones which reflected the corporate world to perfection on the flickering screens.

And now, as I watched Stanley Kubrick’s not so glorious effort Eyes Wide Shut, I realised that I had been bitten by this bug. The parallels that I stumbled upon were almost eerie and incredible. And as on so many occasions, my curious friend’s strangest aphorisms found their mark in the most bizarre of ways.
Corporate Truth

Perhaps in no other movie in the history of film making have the two genres of classic and carnal been so inseparably intertwined.
While there obviously is more than a hint of an underlying message, the entire movie is a celebration of fascinating female forms with some of the most beautiful breasts ever captured on camera. If there is one readily recognisable genius in Kubrick’s movie making, it is in the astonishing capacity of weaving some sort of a storyline around the abundance of vital statistics, and managing to sneak in a measure of meaningfulness without getting distracted by the fabulous flesh-fare on display.

The title of the movie itself brings out the essence of our industry. In Blow Up, I had been riveted by the tennis match between the clowns where the audience followed the non-existent ball as the artists pantomimed their way through the game. Here the name Eyes Wide Shut suggested the perpetual state in which we go through the motions, refusing to see through the most glaring of falsehoods, sitting through senior management meetings, vision and mission statements, goal setting and projections, metrics and measurements, sales presentations and appraisal meetings, strategies and innovations ...

However, as Tom Cruise walked through the film, from one almost sexual encounter to another, and sauntered into the much discussed and written about orgy in the country mansion, my subconscious fishing for a concrete parallel finally felt the jerk of the plot biting the bait.

In a prolonged scene which has been interpreted as symbolic depiction of decadence, the rich and powerful are shown indulging themselves in an elaborate ritual while hiding behind Venetian masks. Pseudo religious chants play in the background, as the high priest leads the brotherhood with ornate, predefined and accepted gestures. Women, of excellent assets and hidden faces, accompany the masked men and it all ends up in simultaneous tumults of uncensored promiscuity. Cruise moves from room to room to find more and more debauchery going on with fabulous faceless female figures engaged in various stages of fornication with the men of the cult.

When it is discovered that Tom Cruise has got there without requisite rights, broken ranks and hobnobbed with the screwing society by somehow getting wrongful access to the password, he is brought under trial and tried by the masked high priest of the orgy.

Hiding true selves, elaborate ritualistic sham of sacred rites, cloaking the prostitution of souls and truth under the embellishments of sacramental rules, fooling around with figures under the cloak of ornate importance while achieving nothing other than fustian fucks.  Finally, zealously holding on to the exclusivity of decadence, slapping the charges of trespassing on an outsider for daring to step into an area cordoned off as the corridors of power.

As my brain continues to die from the friction and suffocation of cubicular existence, my entire corporate life seems to be run through my mind. And the just described scene seems to mirror the events in graphic parallel. Board rooms, vision and mission formulae, management talk, motivational speeches, policy and process, defilement of actual facts and figures, hauling people up for attitude problems when the mask seems to slip to reveal the decadent demeanour underneath.  The fulsome nakedness of the truth staring at our faces while we focus on the facade of organisational self deception, eyes wide shut and gleefully so.

Simon van der Wiel is a fictitious character who appears in the novel The Best Seller by Arunabha Sengupta.

These lines are both collected from the novel and extrapolated from it - additional musings of the author through his alter ego

About Simon

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Amsterdam, Netherlands