Here is another true story from my paperback, ’50 Cautionary Tales for Managers’.  This is story number three. There are 47 more where this came from. At one a month, that’s three years eleven months worth of stories from this source alone. Can you bear the suspense?

 

Rod was the general manager of a car assembly plant.  An engineer by training, he had spent his entire career in the car manufacturing business and knew the industry inside out.  Eventually, just by dint of keeping out of trouble and having worked at the plant longer than any other members of the management team, Rod was promoted to the top job.  But he knew he was operating at the margins of his competence.  He shut himself away for long periods in the rarefied atmosphere of his panelled office, well away from the hustle and bustle of the assembly line.  Abdication (Rod thought of it as delegation) was his way of coping with a threatening world – except in a crisis where, he would become very agitated and rant and rave indiscriminately.

The assembly plant housed four different assembly lines.  The newest line used the latest robot technology with very few human beings in attendance.  The oldest, by contrast, were very labour-intensive and, despite regular preventive maintenance, sometimes broke down.  A stoppage was serious because it jeopardised the production targets that dominated the culture of the plant.  The targets for each shift, together with feedback about ‘actuals against targets’, were clearly displayed for all to see.

On the rare occasions when a line ground to a halt, a maintenance team, always in attendance (they spent most of their time playing cards), swung into action.  Their task was to diagnose the cause of the breakdown and get the line running again as fast as possible.  The average time for a line to be stationary was 17 minutes. 

When a line stopped, a loud siren would sound. It was as if the all-important production targets were letting out a cry of distress.  Immediately supervisors and managers in the vicinity would gather round, looking anxious and worried, and watch the maintenance team at work.  After about 5 minutes, even more senior managers would arrive, huffing and puffing.  They would also stand around, muttering and looking at their watches.  After about 12 minutes, Rod himself would arrive (his office, remember, was some distance away) and proceed to shout abuse at everybody.  After approximately 15 minutes, the maintenance team would have done enough to start the line moving again. 

This sequence of events occurred four or five times a year and Rod was convinced that it was only when he intervened personally that the problem was fixed.  In his view, all the supervisors and managers who arrived at the scene before him were inept since they had failed to get the line moving again before he arrived and saved the day.

Once, the line broke down when Rod was on holiday so he wasn’t there to rant and rave.  The line still took approximately 15 minutes to fix, but Rod dismissed this inconvenient fact as sheer coincidence.  The possibility that his interventions were irrelevant was, quite simply, too terrible for him contemplate.

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