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.

1 comment:

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

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Amsterdam, Netherlands