#33 Us vs Who? (2000)

All Rights Reserved © 2000 Thomas W. Day

In the middle of my career, I had the incredible opportunity to work for a small company at the beginning of its success. Before I started with that company, it had survived for a little more than a decade without ever turning an annual profit. My employment began in the middle of the company's first profitable year, so I had the opportunity to be a part of the success (and to be rewarded accordingly). I also got to know the people and characteristics that had seen the company through the hard years.

One of the most obvious differences between this company and my previous employers was the concept of "enemies." We had 'em.

There were folks who we had never met that we outright hated. If we'd have caught them naked in a dark alley, with no witnesses, there's no telling what we'd have done.

Another cool thing about our particular industry was that we had domestic and international enemies. We were an equal opportunity, worldwide hater of people we didn't know.

On the surface, this probably seems pretty ethnocentric and parochial (and you thought I didn't know any multi-syllable words). It seemed necessary because every month was a fight for survival. Two bad months in a row could have set us all free to "pursue other options," to use the terms HR departments abuse in describing someone whose employment has been terminated.

Those enemies were taking money directly from our individual pockets. When one of our competitors came out with a new product that resulted in a drop in our monthly sales, we reacted like a hillbilly family hearing that a neighbor has destroyed the family still. We wanted revenge. We wanted the damn still/customers back. We were willing to resort to anything, within our power, to get it back.

Fortunately, none of our competitors were within shooting distance. Our only practical source of revenge was to make better products, provide better services, and steal some of their customers with whatever hook we could connive. In less than five years, we beat out several competitors. We killed a couple of them. We chased a couple of big names in Japanese electronics completely out of our market. Those were heady times, but they didn't last.

In the beginning, it was impossible to tell the execs from the grunts without a program. After a dozen years of failure, the company's managers had been reduced to driving 10 year old cars and living in their parents' basements. We all wore the same jeans and tee-shirts to work. We all shared overcrowded, grungy offices without windows or secretaries. Every office had an "open door policy," because the only doors in the building were to the outside. We all used them to get in and out. A lot of meetings were held in the middle of the manufacturing floor, because that was the only space large enough to hold two people more than shared the office.

Then we "got rich." The first sign of success was that the execs decided we had enough money to hire a business consulting service. This "service" provided us with the corporate equivalent of an evil stepmother. We discovered that some people in the company were overworked and that others were hardly working. The consultant recommended punishing the innocent and promoting the guilty and useless. That provided the company with its first opportunity to engage in true Fortune 500, MBA-style back-stabbing and finger-pointing. Some of our execs discovered hidden talents. These new activities took hold of the exec's imaginations and became a fixture of the company's changing anti-character

A few months, post-consultant, we lost our external focus. Some of us discovered we had more internal than external enemies. Once the first few quarts of blood were let, it felt like there was no limit to how much would flow or who would be doing the slicing and dicing. That caused the execs to circle their wagons and defend themselves from all directions, regardless of the source or hazard or reality of the threat. In fact, the less dangerous the threat the more likely that source was to get tromped.

Within a year from the consultant infestation, any uninterested passerby could pick out a company exec from a worker bee. Even consultants could figure out who was who, without introduction or the usual remedial hand-holding. Our execs had expensive European cars, they wore clothes that would never be mistaken for work outfits, their salaries were a dozen times the company average and took another leap every time someone picked up a copy of Fortune and saw what Steve Jobs was paying himself this week. Several of the Big Cheeses took to "putting in appearances" instead of doing a day's work and, when they did show up, they wouldn't look you in the eye if you stuffed a gun up their nose.

Our talent attrition was incredible. People quit, got fired, and some simply stopped coming to work. Good people and not so good people were chased out of the company. The company became an Equal Opportunity Unemployer. A lot of the people who had enjoyed the times when the company was a close knit family went away and their commitment was impossible to replace.

We "fixed" the loss of employee involvement, on the manufacturing floor, by making the process "smarter." We automated product testing and every assembly process possible. We installed intensive "Quality Engineering" (QE) systems to compensate for a pissed-off and incompetent assembly floor. We moved complicated assembly process off-site, to vendors who (hopefully) hadn't been as "successful" as us and could still deal with complex assembly processes.

Management became so isolated from the function of the business that it was like being in an amnesia club. One of the founders started jabbering about how we were a "marketing and conception" business, not an engineering and manufacturing company. That created a hierarchy within the company's departments that gave us a whole new, and very deserving, group of internal folks to hate. Manufacturing and "R&D" split off from each other and became competitors for resources. QA became QE and split off from the whole company, becoming a useless pack of cops who spent their days looking for Dunkin' Donut equivalents and avoiding contributing anything useful to the company's processes or products. And so it went.

The most interesting thing about the experiences was that I had been were the company was going, in my past employment history. I'd worked for big companies that had only internal enemies and politics. I took the job with this company, specifically, to escape that foolishness. Since then, I've done time at one other small company and a pair of giants. The thing that is most obvious about screwed up companies is something said by a cartoon character (Pogo) thirty years ago, "We have met the enemy and he is us."

January 2000

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