The Dilbertizing of the Workplace

Comic Strip Both Reflects and Distorts Reality

by Greg Hutchins

Dilbert, syndicated in 1,900 magazines and newspapers, is probably the world's most popular comic strip. And just when you think you've had about enough of Dilbert and his colleagues, here comes the animated television show.

I like Dilbert. It think it's very funny and sometimes all too personal. I'm an engineer who has spent years trying to de-geek, and I've done Dogbert-type things during my consulting career.

I've worked on special projects that made as much sense as the premier episode of the series, in which a product development team tried to come up with an anthrax lozenge. For those of you who missed it, Dogbert, the consultant, was hired to find a nonlethal way to market the lozenge. You can guess where the show went from there.

I have some problems with the comic strip. For one, it assumes that most people hate their jobs. Having Dilbert cartoons pasted on cubicle walls, coffee mugs, dolls, pens, and other paraphernalia can create a cynical and perverse workplace.

One organizational-development friend says the popularity of Dilbert is creating toxic workplaces. Dilbert has also lanced quality in general and ISO 9000 specifically as being time wasters and fads du jour. But the fact that the strip is so popular must mean it reflects reality and is based as much on fact as on fiction. The comic strip has Dilbertized the workplace, but the workplace allowed the creation of Dilbert.

In the last column, "What's Your Future?" (March, p. 85), I discussed Charles Handy's one-half-by-two-by-three rule of corporate fitness. This model basically says the workplace will be characterized by half as many core employees on the payroll, paid twice as much, producing three times as much as in the Dilbertized world.

A good way to think of the Handy work model is to picture three concentric rings. The inner core consists of an organization's core employees, the middle ring is what I call professional project workers, and the outer ring consists of less-skilled service workers. In this column, I'll look at more of the ways this model could affect you.

Shrinking the corporate center

sm_131figure1.jpg (5891 bytes)Another disturbing trend follows the Handy work model. The corporate center is beginning to shrink while project and exchangeable worker rings grow. Some call this the hollowing out of the corporation (see Figure 1).

One of the many examples of this in corporate America is Sara Lee Corp., which sold its noncore factories. It is focusing on its core strengths; specifically, developing new products, managing its brands, and increasing market share. Sara Lee is outsourcing commodity manufacturing and other noncore activities and only retaining its highly proprietary processes.1 In other words, it focuses on what it does best.

When Handy first proposed and Scott Adams satirized this bleak vision of the corporate workplace, it was considered too radical. Middle managers had been considered indispensable. Quality information systems, accounting, training, industrial engineering, and human resources professionals had been necessary to sustain the organization.

Let's look at what happened to many middle quality managers. The brutal reality is that several middle-management functions have been downloaded to first-level supervision and self-directed teams. Managerial and technical professionals became part of Handy's middle ring and are retained as long as they add value. Otherwise, the functions are downsized and the services outsourced to middle-ring employees or shifted to outer-ring temps. Middle-ring people work on projects that complement or supplement the organization's core processes.

Even senior management and core process workers are not exempt from workplace pressures. Many downsizing and reengineering initiatives dealt exclusively with staff functions, nonprofitable plants, and middle management.

But, what about the core group in a corporation--the CEO, corporate officers, and staff? While these powerful groups may have resisted organizational changes, they are not immune. They must also create value or their existence is jeopardized.

The critical question for all quality professionals is: Where do quality functions and activities fit into the Handy work model? Specifically, where do quality professionals fit into the model? Be objective in your assessment. Your responsibilities, job, and career may depend on it.


1. Robert Rose, "Sara Lee's Plan to Contract Out Work Underscores Trend Among US Firms," Wall Street Journal, March 17, 1997, p. A3.

GREG HUTCHINS is a principal of Quality Plus Engineering, a Portland, OR, process and project management company, and the author of Working It: The Rules Have Changed, available through ASQ Quality Press (item P740). He is a senior member of ASQ. Members wishing to discuss quality profession and career challenges with Hutchins and other ASQ members should visit ASQ's members-only Web site at www.asq.org, then click on forums and follow the instructions to the career forum.

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