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Friday, October 18, 2013

Backhoes and Bureaucracy

We use tools because they make us more efficient, able to get more done, with less effort.

I use tools a lot, for construction, software development, management, leadership, organizing, travel, and I appreciate mechanics who can really use a tool.

I worked a summer with Sterling Guthrie, backhoe artist. He had a totally different way of thinking about work and a more creative relationship with gravity than did men who stood on the ground. He would use his backhoe for up, down, sideways, and twist, saving hundreds of man hours and increasing the production and safety of our crew. Sterling got more completed work out of his backhoe than any man I’ve known.

I was remembering Sterling last week while I was on a Caribbean cruise. Every time we left or came back on the ship we ran a security gauntlet. Ship’s crew, mainly from the Philippines and Eastern Europe, ran us through a scanner at a brisk pace, 100% document check, speaking to each of us by name, actively looking for signs of “not right.” They were smiling, because smiling increased their engagement with each passenger, they were engaged because they were going to be on the ship if anything went wrong, they were establishing personal connections because that is what experience professionals do.

For that cruise, we started from the Port of Baltimore, saving time, complexity, and the security-by-threat of air travel. That was a major bonus.

While I was on the cruise I got to think about why our government had shut down my municipal golf course, memorials, cultural institutions. How had they ever gotten authority to spread that misery?

I remembered a conversation with an in-law a couple of years ago. He was explaining the healthy pay bump he got from carrying a gun to his job, “I’m not a toll collector, I’m a bridge guard!” I couldn’t help myself, “Really? How many get away?”

When we came back, we went through US Customs, after 6 runs through private security screening that week. This time there was no engagement, no encouragement, with a crew who had decided our security was best protected by being unhappy and uninvolved.

Providing negative reinforcement, making no reinforcement the desired state, misses half the available reinforcement response. Our official customs experience was a little less efficient than an open doorway.

I used to accept the occasional government foul up as a part of being a citizen. As business and social groups have gotten more efficient, the government I interact with has lowered their successful completion baseline, while increasing their citizen-threat behavior.

A bureaucracy is a tool, just like a backhoe. If the operator can’t provide value while delighting the customer, it’s time to get another operator.

Sometimes you have to Drop The Other Shoe
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