ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

October 1998


Employees First, Customers Second

Adding Life To Learning

Knowledge Management: It's Really About People

Tricks Of The Trade From The Greatest Showman On Earth


Food For Thought
by Peter Block

Working With Alligators
by Michael Robinson


Brief Cases
Business News Briefs

Views for a Change

Book Review


Working With Alligators
by Michael Robinson

The trouble with American business despite recent gains in productivity and market share, some American organizations are on the brink of disaster. In far too many cases the recent gains have come at the expense of the people and equipment within those organizations.

For the past decade, American workers have been downsized, right sized, reengineered, and finally deengineered. For many companies this has meant more work with fewer people to perform it. The long term cost of this strategy is far greater than most businesses can bear.

In times of crisis, American workers rise to the occasion. Many American organizations use the strength of their employees as a means of survival. Recent studies indicate that the workforce is wearing thin. Employees are regularly working 60+ hours per week, and have been doing so for the past five years. This research also reveals that employees generally feel burned out due to the increase of work created by the shortage of employees. Further, there is a distinct impression that management does not care if they do burn out. In management’s eyes, the workforce is replaceable.

In addition, many preventive, development and training activities have come to a halt. Maintenance is done only when something has gone wrong or there is a problem. Development of people and systems is slowing down. The staff who filled in during training periods no longer exist due to downsizing, therefore there is no training. Some organizations have even returned to the concept of the working supervisor; a person who is expected to run a machine and still run a department. People are expected to run like machines, and like machines, people need maintenance. As Steven Covey has stated, “What good is it to be efficient, if you’re not being effective?”

There is an old story about draining a swamp and alligators that illustrates this predicament. The comment was made that when you are up to your ears in alligators, it is hard to remember that your initial objective was to drain the swamp. Picture a person waist deep in swamp water, armed with only a shovel, and assigned to dig out a path for the swamp water to follow and flow out. In this swamp, however, are alligators. Lots of alligators, which greatly concerns the shoveler. Every time an alligator cruises by, the shoveler wants to ward off the intruding gator with a polite tap on the nose. When there are lots of alligators around that may be all that person can do—swat at alligators. If all they do, however, is swat at alligators, they will never make any progress on the initial objective- draining the swamp. If they are able to occasionally use the shovel for its intended purpose, moving some dirt, then eventually the swamp will be drained and the alligator problem will be significantly lessened.

If American businesses are always fighting the daily alligators and never taking a moment each day to turn a spade of earth, then they will never be able to rid themselves of the swamp, and thus the alligators. Timing is, of course, crucial. You can’t be shoveling when an alligator is chewing on your ankle. On the other hand, it is very easy to fall into the trap of exclusively fighting alligators and not doing any shoveling. There is a strong allure to being the solver of an immediate crisis, and that must be balanced with some shoveling. The secret that many successful businesses have found is that they must turn at least one spade of earth everyday. They must make certain that everyone understands the goal and make some progress toward the goal. Shoveling may be necessary, but it is just an activity, not the end goal itself. Everyone must be careful about timing, but organizations that will succeed will insist on everyone turning that spade full of earth everyday.

October '98 News for a Change | Email Editor
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