"Maybe the boss shouldn't decide" - Part II
18 March 2013
domain-b is please to offer its readers another exclusive preview of The Decision Maker by Dennis Bakke, former president and CEO of AES Corp.
Bakke co founded and serves as president and CEO of AES, a Fortune 200 global power company with 27,000 people in 27 countries. He is also co founder of the Imagine Schools, largest non-profit charter school network.
Published by Pear Press, The Decision Maker, due to be released for sale in March 2013, is a fable, loosely based on the author's own story about the ideas that transformed AES and Imagine Schools.
"The events are fiction, but the passion, purpose, moral questions, and common sense are rooted in decades of my own experience," says Bakke. "These ideas can affect the bottom line: cutting-edge research indicates that a decision-maker culture improves financial performance. But it's not just about the numbers. It's about people: what makes them tick, and what they can achieve when they're given real responsibility and real freedom."
Bakke has previously authored The New York Times bestseller Joy at Work
Continued from: Continued from How bad is it?
Lipstick on A Pig
As soon as Tom stepped onto the manufacturing floor the next morning, a stocky, silver-haired man in a blue work shirt strode down the main aisle toward him. Tom recognised Ben Malkmus, the area manager, and lifted his hand in greeting.
Ben gave a tight smile as Tom walked up. ''Tom,'' he said. ''What can I do for you?''
Tom gave him a hearty handshake. ''How are you doing?''
''We're doing,'' Ben said. ''We've got everything running we can. But the machine that went down is pretty crucial to our operation.''
''I understand that,'' Tom said. ''And I understand the tech running it identified a problem before it blew.''
Ben's expression turned guarded. ''None of this was his fault,'' he said. ''Anton's a good tech. He was following protocol.''
Tom nodded. ''I'm not worried about Anton,'' he said. ''I'm worried about the protocol. He knew how to turn the machine off, but he didn't.''
''I didn't make the protocol,'' Ben said. ''That all came down from HR.''
Ed Harkness, the previous owner, must have been one of those bosses who always wanted to know whose fault it was, Tom thought. Ben could barely talk about fixing the problem. He was too busy defending himself and his people from blame.
''Well, I'd like to talk with you about how it's been working,'' Tom said. ''Because it didn't seem to work very well for us yesterday.''
''What do you suggest?'' Ben asked, crossing his arms.
''I want our people to have the power to make decisions that are good for the business. Like turning off a machine when they can see it's in trouble.''
''You're talking about giving them the power to shut down the whole line,'' Ben objected. ''Workers can't always see the big picture like the manager can.''
Tom nodded. ''Sure,'' he said. ''But if Anton had had that power yesterday, the line would be up and running this morning.''
Ben couldn't argue with that, but he didn't seem to like it. ''I'm just not sure what the point of having a manager is,'' he said, ''if the manager doesn't make decisions.''
''We are making a decision,'' Tom said. ''We're deciding that we might not be the best one to make every decision.''
''You're the boss,'' Ben said.
That wasn't the point Tom was trying to make, but he let it pass for now. ''Is Anton around?'' he asked.
''This way,'' Ben said. He led Tom through the maze of machinery to a station where a tall black man was inspecting a batch of metal parts. He looked up when he saw Ben. ''I think we can use most of these,'' he said. ''I've been checking the specs, and it looks like the parts were good right up till it blew.''
''Anton,'' Ben said. ''This is Tom Anderson. The new owner,'' he added.
The same wariness Tom had seen in Ben's eyes now appeared in Anton's. Anton laid down the part he'd been measuring and faced Tom, his shoulders squared.
''I want to thank you,'' Tom said.
Startled, Anton glanced at Ben. Ben shrugged.
''We know it's not your fault the machine blew,'' Tom continued. ''It's ours. You did the right thing by trying to save the machine. If we'd given you the power, you could have. The next time you see something like this coming, I want you to go ahead and shut it down.''
Anton's expression turned a shade cynical. ''That's easy to say now,'' he said. ''But what if I'd shut down the machine and it didn't blow? Then you'd be down here asking me how come I'm holding up the whole line.''
''That's when you'd tell us you held up the line to save the machine,'' Tom told him.
Anton raised his eyebrows, unconvinced.
''Is there anything else?'' Ben broke in. ''We've got a lot going on today.''
''That's it,'' Tom told him. ''For today.''
Tom headed back to his office, unsettled. The culture of control and blame at MedTec seemed to run deeper than they'd thought. And neither Ben nor Anton seemed thrilled about his attempt to address the problems.
On the way back, he stopped off in the employee lounge. This, he thought, he could be proud of. Just as he'd hoped, a trio of people was gathered around one of the handsome vintage pinball machines. When Tom joined the group, the woman across the machine greeted him with a friendly smile, and the man beside him gave a half nod.
They didn't recognise him, Tom realised. It was a small company, but big enough that not everyone knew each other. He'd been there for only a couple of weeks. And they probably didn't expect to see the company owner in the employee lounge.
When the game finished, he couldn't resist.
''Pretty nice, isn't it?'' he said. ''Harkness never gave us a lounge like this.''
The guy who'd just finished playing was thirtyish, with sandy blond hair that fell just below his chin - probably one of the researchers, from the looks of him. The look he gave Tom was half amusement, half disbelief.
''Lipstick on a pig,'' he said.
Tom's eyebrows shot up. ''What do you mean?''
''Oh, come on,'' the guy said. ''The pinball machines. And did you see the announcement they've got up now? The Friday night parties they want to start?''
Tom nodded. The Friday night parties had been his idea.
Sure, pinball machines were nice, but he wanted to build real camaraderie within the company and show his people how much he valued them. Regular parties, he figured, would do both. And put all the improvements in the lounge to good use.
''Smoke and mirrors,'' the guy said. ''They wouldn't have to give us all this stuff if it wasn't such a terrible place to work.''
Tom glanced at the pinball machine, stung.
The woman checked her watch. ''We're gonna be late,'' she said.
The guy stepped back from the pinball machine and spread his hands toward it. ''It's all yours,'' he said as the group filed out.
Back in his office, Tom's administrative assistant, Vanessa Dominguez, greeted him with a big smile. ''Good morning,'' she said.
Tom started to pass her, preoccupied. Then he circled back. ''Vanessa,'' he said. ''You seem happy.''
Vanessa's pretty, middle-aged face turned puzzled. She'd been prompt and accurate with answers to his other questions about the business, but she didn't seem sure about the right answer for this. ''I'm happy,'' she said, her voice tentative.
''You're happy to be here?'' Tom said. ''Happy at work?''
The puzzled look vanished from Vanessa's face. Her smile widened.
Tom felt some of the stress slide from his own shoulders.
At least one person at MedTec seemed to like her job.
''Oh, Mr. Anderson,'' she said, beaming. ''You don't have to worry about that.''
Tom smiled back.
''I never expected to be happy at work,'' Vanessa added.
''Wait,'' Tom said. ''So you're not happy here?''
''I'm happy when I'm at home,'' Vanessa said. ''With my family. This job lets me take care of them.''
''But you're not happy here,'' Tom insisted.
Vanessa laughed and handed him a pink sheaf of phone messages.
''Work's not supposed to be fun,'' she told him. ''That's why they call it work.''
Instead of going straight to his own office, Tom took a detour to Jim's. Jim was seated behind the giant mahogany desk they'd inherited from Harkness when he left. He leaned back when Tom came in.
''I just came from the floor,'' Tom said.
Jim grinned. ''I just ran the numbers,'' he said. ''If they can get the machine back up in the time they promised, we'll still hit our projections for the month. Just.'' He let out a sigh of relief. ''I wasn't looking forward to telling Helen we'd missed our goals the first month out.''
''I think we've got a problem here,'' Tom said.
The grin vanished from Jim's face. ''Not another equipment malfunction,'' he said. ''I can't believe it. All this stuff was just inspected as part of the sale.''
''It's not the machines,'' Tom said. ''It might be worse.''
In tough times, Jim was always able to buckle down, take the truth, and move on. It was one of the things Tom liked best about him - and one of the reasons he trusted him. Now he could see Jim compose himself, his eyes alert, waiting for the worst. ''What?'' he asked evenly.
''The people here,'' Tom said. ''They're not happy.''
Tom could see Jim's eyes flicker. He was trying to take Tom seriously, but Tom could see Jim didn't rate this as a problem on the level of a major equipment malfunction.
''Well,'' Jim began. ''We knew we had some problems with morale coming in. But we're not going to manage the same way Harkness did. And once they find the new lounge, and start coming to your parties -''
''I think the lounge is actually part of the problem,'' Tom said. ''They think it's smoke and mirrors, to hide the fact the jobs are rotten.''
''Who's 'they'?'' Jim asked.
Now that Tom tried to put his concerns into words, they seemed thin, even to him. But the fact that he couldn't put the feeling into words didn't make it go away. If anything, his unease grew as he struggled to express it.
''Everyone I talked to,'' he said. ''None of them seem happy. It's not what we wanted when we decided to go into this. We wanted our own business, something we could run our way. And we wanted our people to be happy, too. We didn't want to be the only ones in the building who got to do what we liked to do.''
''You can't make everyone happy all the time,'' Jim reminded him.
''But nobody here seems happy now,'' Tom said.
''Listen,'' Jim said. ''I'd like to have a satisfied workforce as much as the next guy. For one thing, there are a lot of economic incentives to pay attention to employee satisfaction. People like a place, they work harder, waste less. I'm not going to argue with any of that. I just don't think it's our central concern. Not at this stage in the game.''
''It's a central concern to me,'' Tom said. ''Harkness has been treating these people like machines. They're not ma- chines, so they're not happy. But it's not just about their happiness. When they can't turn off distressed equipment, the whole line goes down for days. That's a genuine business outcome for us.''
Jim raised his eyebrows.
Tom recognised the look. They'd worked side by side for years. They had a healthy respect based on that. But they didn't always see eye to eye. And sometimes, they'd realised, one of them just needed some time to work a problem out on their own.
''Well,'' Jim said. ''What would you like to do about it?''
Tom wished he had an answer. Right now, all he had were questions.
''I'll get back to you on that,'' he said.