Having spent the better part of the last 28 years in very large organizations both in and out of government, I've picked up on certain phenomena. Large bureaucracies for example, both public and private, tend toward a certain sclerotic self perpetuation over time, i.e., they adhere to outdated or illogical procedures just because. The problem is further aggravated in the public sector where inefficiency is rewarded rather than punished, but private bureaucracies are nevertheless still vulnerable to the predicament. After lo these many years, I've concluded that to the extent that anything worthwhile actually gets accomplished in a large organization, it is due in no small measure to the people at the bottom rung of the ladder who actually do the work, often times despite myriad bureaucratic obstacles.
For example, on any given day, the trucking company that employs me has many thousands of 18 wheelers on the road. To accommodate the volume of trucks, freight, and drivers, the company has put into place an enormous support system of terminals, maintenance shops, and contract maintenance for roadside repairs, etc. Last year, the starter on my truck gave out. After calling a repair truck out to start the beast, I let the engine run until I reached a repair shop at one of our terminals. As often is the case in a large organization, every contingency is anticipated with a corresponding checklist. The checklist for starter problems instructed the mechanic to check the outside of the starter for physical strike marks. Often times, a sharp whack on a starter will jar the innards around so that the vehicle will start (which is the beginning and end of my mechanical knowledge on the subject). Since my starter had no such marks indicating any whacks, the checklist instructed the mechanic to do nothing. That's right, let it go back on the road. I protested that if I got stranded in a bad neighborhood after having brought the vehicle to the shop for repair, the author of the checklist might end up with more strike marks than the starter. To no avail, the checklist is sacred and he who disregards it might pay with his job. There is no room for discretion, no room for good sense. And the author of the checklist was far removed from the implementation and result of his directive.
Sure enough, a few weeks later the vehicle again refused to start, this time at the entrance gate to a warehouse in Ohio. My tractor trailer effectively blocked all vehicles from entering the facility for over an hour until a repair truck could be dispatched to take care of the situation. The time spent waiting was not a total waste however, as I had a hammer with me. By the time the repair truck arrived, just about everything under the hood had a generous supply of strike marks, just in case, you understand. In the end, however, the company wound up spending more money calling out contract roadside repair crews than it would have spent had it simply replaced the malfunctioning part in the first instance.
The events of the last several days have again underscored my faith in the worker bees. An antifreeze leak that could have been repaired at the truck stop across the street was instead referred to the company terminal an hour down the road, where it sat for days waiting repair. In the interim, Dad and I have been using a loaner truck, which delayed the delivery of an important load, costing the company money. Meanwhile, an attempt to pick up another load at a large chemical company resulted in us getting tangled in their unique web of procedures that required items which were not available in the loaner truck. The items had to be purchased at company expense from a truck stop, which also resulted in another late delivery that cost the company still more money. Immovable rules that deprive middle managers of the authority and discretion to employ common sense solutions produce circumstances that make it nearly impossible for the people at the bottom to actually produce the results that make the paper-pushers look good. I sometimes stand amazed that anything productive ever gets done.
So next time the young first-line employee gives you an answer you don't necessarily want to hear, cut him some slack please. Chances are, the asinine rule he just quoted was authored by a functionary who is far removed from the action and will never have to deal first-hand with the results. And if I may be so bold as to offer advice to the senior leader; get out and talk to the people on the ground level and get some candid perspectives. Oh yes, and never take the advice of people who would likely drown if you waded into water over waist deep.